SUBMITTED BY: Hugh MacRae II (written by Susan Block, edited by Cheri Todd Molter)
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William MacRae was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on the ninth of September, 1834. He was the…son of Alexander MacRae, president of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad,[and Anna Jane Martin MacRae]. As a teenager, William left home, which was located on what is now the site of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, and went to receive his formal education in Philadelphia. Upon graduation, he was employed as a civil engineer surveying for the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad. He was working in that capacity in Monroe when Fort Sumter was bombarded and immediately enlisted in the Monroe Light Infantry.
Though MacRae had no formal military training, perhaps his ancestry predisposed him to excel on the battlefield. His surname means “Son of Fortune” and had been given to one of his brawny forefathers in Medieval Scotland following a particularly successful battle. Two of William’s great-uncles, referred to in ancient writings as the “Wild McRas,” died fighting for the Pretender at Culloden. His father, General Alexander MacRae, fought in the War of 1812, published a book on soldiery, led a government expedition through Texas, and at the age of seventy, re-enlisted to fight in the Civil War.
…. General William MacRae and his siblings formed the largest group of brothers to fight in the Civil War. All of William MacRae’s…brothers served at one time in the Army or Navy. One of them, Archibald, was already in the United States Army when the war began and felt obligated to fight for the Union. His decision created a unique Civil War predicament and a painful wedge in the family [since] Archibald MacRae and his siblings [were]…fighting on opposite sides…[and,] in one battle, [also] face to face.
William MacRae exhibited not only traits typical of Alexander MacRae’s other sons, but charismatic qualities that were uniquely his own as he rose quickly to outrank both friends and brothers. Soon after enlisting in the Monroe Light Infantry in 1861, he formed his own company and was commissioned captain of the 15th Regiment….The tall, attractive, blue-eyed Scot handled his troops exceptionally well and was said to have the ability of instilling more fight into them than almost any other officer in the Army. A member of MacRae’s regiment was quoted as saying, “He could place his command in position quicker and infuse more fighting qualities into his men than any officer I ever knew. His presence with his troops seemed to dispel all fear and inspire everyone with a desire for the fray.”
In the summer of 1862, William MacRae, under orders of General Robert E. Lee, led a 300-man regiment into battle on high ground at Malvern Hill. Union Artillery swiftly took the lives of 265 of the southern soldiers, including the colonel and five captains. In December of the same year, MacRae fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg where he was posted on the hill in front of Marye’s Heights. Although half of his men were lost, he held his ground and became known to his men that day as “Fighting Billy MacRae”.
…In addition, William MacRae fought in the Seven Days Battles, Cold Harbor, Second Manassas, and Sharpsburg. At Bristoe Station, MacRae’s troops were subjected to such terrific fire that “their lines were mowed down like grains before a reaper.” Though he would make his Civil War career out of being on the front line, he…only received one minor wound when a ball tore his chin. “On one occasion,” wrote David MacRae, “he had the unhappy distinction of being fired at by nearly a whole division. It was dusk, there was heavy skirmishing going on and MacRae, making his way through the woods, and riding up to what he thought was a division of Confederate troops, found to his horror that it was Franklin’s division of the enemy. He was recognized and told that he was a prisoner. He said nothing but, turning his horse and giving it a touch of the spur, galloped for the wood. According to report, nearly the whole Franklin’s division of 20,000 fired a volley after him. His sword was cut in two, his cap shot off, and his horse badly wounded, but he himself escaped unhurt.”
On 3 June 1864, MacRae was appointed colonel and was assigned to the command of the wounded General Kirkland’s Brigade at Cold Harbor, Virginia. MacRae joined them just as they were moving out of camp on the border of Petersburg to escort wagon trains bringing in supplies. The preceding temporary commanders had been slack in their discipline even to the point of allowing the men to ride constantly in the wagons. Rather than refreshment, the result had been a general loss of morale and alertness among the troops. MacRae characteristically took full control including marching orders, and the laxity and grumbling were quickly replaced with “absolute faith in the Commander. His exact discipline prepared them for the trying ordeal which they were to pass from now to the end.”
On 22 June 1864, at the youthful age of 29, William MacRae became an acting Brigadier General, even though his position was not made official until November 4th of that year. His elation was no doubt tempered by his family’s realistic attitude to rank and privilege which was echoed in a letter from Walter MacRae to another of William’s brothers, Donald. It was dated 26 March 1863 and [stated], “No one down here knows what General ________ intended to do, although the papers confidently assert that he accomplished his purpose. These big generals don’t always have such deep laid plans as people give them credit for.”
However, General William MacRae quickly proved himself worthy of his rank. Walter Clark, a member of his new brigade, wrote of the “gallant William MacRae” who “changed the expression of the whole command in less than two weeks and gave the men infinite faith in him and in themselves which was never lost, not even when they grounded arms at Appomattox.”
General MacRae’s talents were called upon as his Brigade was ordered [near Petersburg] to the Crater…the area where the two armies were very close to one another and each fired ceaselessly night and day. Because of the intensity of the work, most troops only served there for three days. MacRae’s Brigade performed so valiantly that they were retained in the Crater for eight consecutive days at the end of which they were marched out a few miles to join in an attack on Union fortifications near the Weldon Railroad. MacRae’s men fought for an entire day and succeeded in driving back the enemy, a task seven other brigades had previously failed to do. They finished the battle too exhausted to drive farther and too close to retreat. They waited under fire for night to conceal their withdrawal and earned the accolade: “If there was any hard work or fighting to be done, MacRae’s Brigade was appointed to the task.”
On 9 August 1864, MacRae’s Brigade was in Petersburg occupying the entrenchments not more than 200 yards from the enemy’s line. Sharpshooters on both sides fired constantly night and day for five days as Union soldiers tried to take over the Weldon Railroad. General MacRae’s fighting spirit became even stronger as he strived to protect the railroad which was not only Robert E. Lee’s main line of communication and supply, but was managed by his father, Alexander MacRae. On the eighteenth of August, MacRae’s Brigade made a sudden, vigorous attack on Union troops who were nearing the rails and forced them back one entire mile before General MacRae received inexplicable orders to withdraw. Two days later, Union Soldiers gained control of the Weldon Railroad.
MacRae’s most dramatic service occurred at the Battle of Reams Station, which took place on 25 August 1864 at a location ten miles southwest of Petersburg, Virginia. Seeking to regain control of the railroad, the brigades of Generals Lane, Cook, and MacRae joined General A. P. Hill’s command in an attempt to drive the enemy from the lines. At daylight on the morning of the 25th, General Wade Hampton had moved his cavalry and driven the Federal cavalry before him at all points. A first major assault occurred at two in the afternoon under the command of General A. P. Hill. Hill’s men fought well but were repulsed.
At five o’clock, three North Carolina brigades tried again. This time, General MacRae was one of the commanders. The other brigades were led by Generals John R. Cooke and James H. Lane. Though General MacRae had fought for a time under General Cooke and had less experience than General Lane, he took it upon himself to change the plans for the attack when he saw that Lane’s men were in trouble at the front.
As General Lane’s men made their way through the fallen tree limbs that had been cut and sharpened by Union soldiers, MacRae positioned his brigade at the edge of a pine thicket about three hundred yards from the breastworks to be assaulted. As General Lane’s troops began to draw fire, General MacRae looked to General Cooke to precede him into battle as planned. Cooke hesitated. Walking along the line MacRae told the men he knew they would go over the works, and that he wished them to do so without firing a gun. “All right, General, we will go there,” was the answer which came from all. The men were in high spirits, jesting and laughing, and ready to move on an instant’s notice. As the fire became more violent, especially in front of Lane, MacRae said to Captain Louis G. Young, his Adjutant-General, “I shall wait no longer for orders. Lane is drawing the entire fire of the enemy; give the order to advance at once.”
MacRae’s brigade emerged from the thicket, silent at first as they moved forward, and then cheering loudly as they advanced towards the dazed enemy. So shrill was the “Rebel Yell” that several frightened Federal soldiers found themselves shooting bullets skyward.
Though the enemy opened tremendous fire, MacRae’s men lined up in a straight and unbroken formation. The fighting became heavy and occasionally involved hand-to-hand encounters using clubbed rifles. The other two brigades quickly finished working their way through the sharpened limbs and also crossed the embankment. General Hampton’s calvary [sic] began to attack the Union Army from the rear, at which point they abandoned the field in confusion.
“MacRae’s sharpshooters,” a group handpicked and trained by the General, opened fire on the retreating columns of the enemy. One of them was Wilmingtonian, W. P. Oldham, who according to one witness, “sighted one of the guns repeatedly, and when he saw the effect of his accurate aim upon the disordered masses in front, was so jubilant that General MacRae, with his usual quiet humor, remarked, ‘Oldham thinks he is at a ball in Petersburg.’”
Plan of Battle – Reams Station
The Battle of Reams Station is better understood by reference to the plan. Note that the Confederate troops, attacking at 4:00 p.m., had the advantage of the sun behind them. The Confederate infantry Brigades of Generals Lane, Cooke, and MacRae are shown in position in the order named, left to right. The charge of MacRae’s Brigade, at full speed over open ground, required about three minutes, surprising Union defenders, and resulting in the Confederate victory. Note also the swift movement of the Confederate calvary [sic] around to the Union rear, further demoralizing the Union troops.
The Battle of Reams Station was a classic example of a well-conceived and executed battle plan by Confederate field Generals against a superior and heavily fortified Union position. The fast charge of General MacRae’s Brigade, ordered at the crisis of the battle undoubtedly turned the tide and produced a brilliant victory, which was rewarded by personal commendation from General Robert E. Lee.
The Federal loss in the Battle of Reams Station was between 600 and 700 men killed and wounded. Over 2,000 prisoners and eleven pieces of artillery were taken. The Confederate loss of 500 was considered small and fell principally on Lane’s Brigade.
“With a beam in his bright, blue eyes, General MacRae explained to me after the battle the cause of his action,” wrote Louis G. Young. “As Colonel of the Fifteenth North Carolina, he had served under Cooke, and knowing him thoroughly, had divined the reason why he had postponed his advance. The obstruction in front of Lane’s Bridge would render its advance slow. There being nothing to retard Cooke’s, it would outstrip Lane’s and the enemy’s fire be concentrated on the former. Therefore, Cooke to save his command from this, was for giving Lane a good start. The thought flashed through General MacRae’s mind that this had gone far enough, and acting upon this impulse, he relieved Lane’s Brigade, which was suffering fearfully, and hastened a brilliant victory for us.”
General Lee…was greatly impressed with the reports he received concerning the Battle of Reams Station. He wrote the following letter to Governor Vance in Raleigh: “I have frequently been called upon to mention the services of North Carolina soldiers in this Army, but their gallantry and conduct were never more deserving of admiration than in the engagement at Reams Station on the 25th ultimo.
“The brigades of Generals Cooke, MacRae, and Lane… advanced through a thick abatis of felled trees, under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, and carried the enemy’s works with a steady courage that elicited the warm commendation of their corps and division commanders, and the admiration of the Army.
“If the men who remain in North Carolina share the spirit of those they have sent to the field, as I doubt not they do, her defense may securely be trusted to their hands.
I am with great respect,
Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee, General”
General MacRae’s aptitude for military achievement went far beyond textbook knowledge and on occasion could only be labelled as ingenious. In the fall of 1864, Louis G. Young…MacRae’s [Adjutant-General], was ordered to lay out the works at a new bivouac location near Petersburg, Virginia. The well-trained young man proudly showed his work to William MacRae who immediately changed all the lines to create an unconventional positioning of the works. Several days later, Union troops attacked the resting Confederates who rallied quickly to drive them back. A second attack from another direction was successfully countered by General MacRae’s brigade, but only because of his repositioning of the lines. After the war…Young wrote, “Thus did it providentially happen that had the lines been conventionally laid out the works could not have been held by us for five minutes. As it was, the attack was repelled, and the extension of Grant’s left delayed for many days.”
In April 1865, when Lee and his tiny, tattered Army were attempting to make their way to the mountains, MacRae and his brigade covered the retreat near Farmville. Nearing Appomattox, where preparations for surrender had already been made, MacRae attacked and drove off Union brigades which had been besieging Lee’s wagon trains. This fighting constituted the last battle of the war. On the ninth of April, when his troops arrived at…Appomattox, they instinctively braced to charge the enemy. They were quizzical when General MacRae commanded, “Halt,” and amazed as they watched their leader dismount and lie down. Each of the 442 remaining soldiers then followed suit in an unforgettable expression of [surrender]. MacRae was the last of seven generals present to stack arms and surrender at Appomattox. He then signed the surrender documents along with Robert E. Lee.
General MacRae returned to Wilmington in good health. After a brief rest, he accepted a position as General Engineer and Supervisor of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad. Several years later, he moved to Georgia to supervise the Macon and Brunswick Railroad. His success in the world of business paralleled his rapid military promotions and soon he became Manager and Chief Engineer of the vast Western and Atlantic Railroad.
Tragically, William MacRae died 11 February 1882 of pneumonia at the age of 47. He was visiting relatives in Augusta, Georgia at the time of his death. His funeral was held at Saint James Church, Wilmington, with burial following at Oakdale Cemetery. General MacRae was eulogized as a “man of fine physique as well as professional attainments. As a civil engineer and manager, he had no superior.” The local newspaper stated that William MacRae was “one of the best railroad managers in the country. He was a brave…officer of the Confederacy, and one whom…Lee delighted to honor.”
But certainly, the most eloquent eulogy was delivered eight years later when Major Charles M. Stedman, who had been a member of MacRae’s brigade, delivered a Memorial Day speech in Wilmington entitled, “A Sketch of the Life and Character of General William MacRae.” After chronicling MacRae’s life, Stedman concluded: “Nature had endowed him with a type of personal courage which made him absolutely indifferent to danger, and this calmness amidst a hurricane of shot, shell, and musketry was as great as when seated at his breakfast table in his tent or reviewing his command at a dress parade. He made all around him brave. It mattered not how appalling the fire, how terrific the storm of death which swept a field of battle, his presence always steadied the men, who seemed to imbibe his spirit. I know not how to characterize this quality unless it be termed the ‘mesmerism of bravery.’”
The Morning Star, Wilmington, N.C., 28 April 1868.
The Diary of Nicholas W. Schenck, North Carolina Room, New Hanover County Public Library, n/d, n/p. D. H. Hill, Jr., Confederate Military History (Atlanta: Confederate Publishing, 1899), IV, 330.
Confederate Veteran, “The Fifty-Nine MacRaes in Gray,” Lawrence MacRae, January, 1932. Atlanta Constitution (“The Clan MacRae Held an Interesting Reunion at the Expedition”), 10 November 1895.
Alexander H MacRae, The Soldier’s Instructor (Fayetteville, N.C., 1825.)
Joshua James and Alexander MacRae, A Journal of a Tour in Texas (Wilmington, N.C., 1835) Library of Congress.
James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River (Raleigh, 1916).
The Weekly Star, 7 September 1888.
William Lawrence Saunders Papers, North Carolina Archives, Raleigh.
David MacRae, The Americans at Home.
Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr. (ed.), North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865 (Raleigh, 1981), X, 395. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
James T. White, The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York, 1935), VII, 145.
Oakdale Cemetery records. Augusta Chronicle, 12 February 1882.
The Morning Star, 14 February 1882.
Charles M. Stedman, Memorial Address (Wilmington, N. C., 1890), 10.