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General William MacRae:

"Lee's Fighting Brigadier"


The Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers

General William MacRae:  Lee’s Fighting Brigadier


General William MacRae distinguished himself as one of

General Robert E. Lee’s brigadier’s in the Army of Northern

Virginia, leading his brigade until the final surrender

at Appomattox.  He was a man of small physical stature

whose “high-pitched voice belied his solid fighting abilities.”

It was said that MacRae’s brigade was one of the best assault

units in Lee’s army, and Captain William Kenan wrote in

1899 that:

“under his leadership the highest degree of discipline and

proficiency was attained, for no position was considered too

strong to be assaulted if MacRae ordered it.” Author James

Sprunt describes MacRae as “a fine specimen of the material

that the Highlands have often given to North Carolina, a spare,

dark-visaged soldierly fellow---whose personal valor and

splendid handling of his troops in battle had caused him to be repeatedly complimented by Lee in general orders.”


William MacRae was the seventh of nine sons born to Alexander

MacRae of Wilmington, a man descended from the clan MacRae

from Rosshire on the coastal western highlands of Scotland. His

family members had fought with great valor in wars from the

Crusades to Waterloo.  

Alexander was born in Cumberland County, North Carolina in

1796, son of Colin MacRae who died in 1807 at over ninety-years of

age and who is said to have perfectly embodied in his person

and manners the traditional idea of the Scotch Highlander. 

So educated by his parents, Alexander MacRae was conversant

in Gaelic and possessed the Highlander traits to be passed on to his

sons. He married the daughter of Zilpah McClammy, mother

of William MacRae.

Alexander MacRae served in the War of 1812 and served long in

the North Carolina militia, being elected to major-general in the 1840’s.

He came to Wilmington in 1814 and found employment as a printing

office clerk, later became a successful commission merchant in

business with his brother Archibald, and contributed greatly to the establishment of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad---

ultimately serving as its president.  

In his seventh decade of life, Alexander MacRae as a Captain

and Major of North Carolina troops served at Forts Fisher and

Anderson, and fought at Bentonville in March of 1865---holding

the unique distinction of being the oldest Confederate officer.  

Though born during Washington’s presidency, Alexander was to

live long enough to witness the end of the young American republic

presided over by that man---Alexander died in April 1868.

Early Life of William MacRae:

William MacRae was born on September 9, 1834 in Wilmington and

raised in an affluent atmosphere given his father’s successful businesses.

 After receiving his early education in local academies and developed

an interest in railroads as a career.  At age 16 he took employment with Morris & Company of Philadelphia and learned the trades of locomotive engineer and machinist. In 1855 he returned to Wilmington to work in the machine shops of the Wilmington and Weldon railroad where he served as

an engineer and track boss.  He later studied civil engineering under his brother John and his father, and worked with them in North and South Carolina and Florida. 

He was conducting surveys for the Carolina Central Railroad at Monroe,

North Carolina in April of 1861 when the Northern invasion began, and enlisted in the Monroe Light Infantry as a private. After this unit was mustered in as Company B of the 15th North Carolina Regiment in May, MacRae was elected its Captain.   He would be joined in the defense of North Carolina by all but one of his eight brothers---one would desert his native State for the army of the enemy.

 Military Service:

MacRae’s unit served first in Virginia but returned to North Carolina

to reinforce General Branch at Goldsboro after the Battle of New Bern. 

He then was ordered back to Virginia with his regiment becoming

part of General Howell Cobb’s brigade, which was under

General John B. Magruder’s (later Lafayette McLaws)

division command, seeing action in the Peninsular and

Seven Day’s campaigns. 

MacRae’s meritorious service earned him a promotion to Lieutenant

Colonel  of the 15th North Carolina in April 1862. At the Battle of Sharpsburg he commanded the brigade, then reduced to only 250 men,

and repulsed three enemy assaults---withdrawing only after losing 200 casualties and exhausting his ammunition. MacRae’s  regiment

participated at Fredericksburg and manned the breastworks

at Marye’s Heights; then his 15th North Carolina was transferred

to General John R. Cooke’s brigade of Tarheels to serve in southwest Virginia, being promoted to full colonel in February 1863.  



He rejoined Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after its return from Gettysburg, earning great distinction for valor at the Battle of Bristoe

Station. He then assumed brigade command after the wounding of

General William W. Kirkland (of Hillsboro) at Cold Harbor in 1864---

with a temporary rank of brigadier general.  Kirkland had served

previously as colonel of the 21st North Carolina, and had assumed

command of the brigade after the death of General James Johnston Pettigrew (of Washington County) in the aftermath of Gettysburg.

The brigade is known in War Between the States history as the

"Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae" brigade.

The new "MacRae" brigade now commanded consisted of the

11th, 26th, 44th, 47th and 52nd North Carolina Infantry regiments

which had already achieved fame under Pettigrew, but under

MacRae’s leadership they were to become an

exceptionally-disciplined fighting unit with a stern and able leader.  

A Glorious Victory---The Battle of Ream’s Station:

On August 25, 1864, the three brigades of North Carolinians under

Generals Lane, Cook and MacRae were concentrated in a wooded area opposite the right flank of Northern forces.  MacRae had told his men that

he knew they would go over the enemy works, and that he wished them

to do this without firing a gun.  The artillery fire of (Col. William J.) Pegram swept the enemy forces before the brigades advanced late in the afternoon, charging up to the Northern earthworks and fighting hand to hand---ending with a full rout of the enemy.  MacRae had instructed Lt. W.E. Kyle, and

his sharpshooters to concentrate upon the Northern artillery batteries firing

at his forces, thus eliminating this threat.  Once captured, the guns were turned upon the fleeing enemy by Captain W.P. Oldham of Wilmington

and his men of Company K of the 44th North Carolina who opened an accurate and devastating fire.

“In a moment of panic our troops gave way,” a Northern colonel

wrote (and) soldiers either threw themselves on the ground in

surrender or fled across the railroad. Never in the history of the

(Northern) Second Corps had such an exhibition of incapacity and

cowardice been given, a Northern soldier asserted. Author

James Robertson states in his “A.P. Hill, Story

of a Confederate Warrior”:

“of the 2700 (Northern) casualties, 2150 had surrendered on the

field…in addition, the (Northern) army had lost 9 cannon,

3100 small arms and 32 horses. (Northern General) Gibbon was

so humiliated by the rout at Ream’s Station that he submitted his

resignation from the army.”

Col. Pegram’s artillery battalion thought very highly of MacRae’s

brigade and felt that their guns could never be captured by the enemy

with MacRae supporting them.  General Robert E. Lee publicly

and repeatedly stated that not only North Carolina, but he whole Confederacy, owed a debt of gratitude to Lane’s, Cook’s and

MacRae’s brigades which could never be repaid---and personally

wrote to Governor Zebulon Vance expressing his high

appreciation of their services.  In his letter to Vance, Lee stated:

“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.”  

It is said that the great success of the assault at Ream’s Station was

largely the result of the keenness of MacRae in selecting the right

moment to strike at the enemy without awaiting orders to do so.  



At his next major engagement with the enemy at Burgess’ Mill in October 1864, MacRae’s brigade once again displayed coolness and gallantry in battle. After an assault that broke the enemy line and captured an artillery battery, his brigade was left unsupported while an enemy counter-attack closed upon his flanks.  A desperate struggle to hold his position ensued

until nightfall, when he fought through the new enemy lines that were

forming to his rear.  His brigade entered that battle with 1,050 troops,

  and all but 525 were casualties in the engagement.

MacRae would be elevated to permanent rank as a brigadier general  through a special congressional law of October 1862, with this rank to

be effective November 4th.  Though many times in exposed and

dangerous positions himself, MacRae suffered only one wound to

the jaw, though his uniform was pierced often by bullets and shrapnel. 

His sabres suffered the most with two being cut in half by shots.

Though he lacked formal military training, MacRae was later

described as “one of the finest brigade commanders in Lee’s

Army of Northern Virginia” and a brilliant tactician knowing

when best to strike an enemy.


General MacRae and his brigade were not involved in the second

Battle of Hatcher’s Run of February 1865 in which several

Southern units severely suffered severe losses. General A.P. Hill

later recognized MacRae's value to his army and later testified that

“had William MacRae been here, the result would have been different.”

As his brigade retreated with Lee to Appomattox in April 1865,

MacRae's men fought off constant enemy attacks on Lee's precious

supply wagons. At the end, MacRae would be the last general,

and his unit the last brigade to stack arms during the surrender

proceedings on April 9th, 1865.

The final roll call would find 442 men left in his brigade.

As a testament to MacRaes's leadership, one of his own men stated:

“General MacRae, on being assigned to the brigade, changed the physical 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."

Aftermath of War:

Returning a penniless former-brigadier general to Wilmington,

life-long bachelor William MacRae searched for employment in the

business he knew best---railroads.

He became general superintendent of the

Wilmington and Manchester Railroad in January 1866, bringing

it back from ruin to a fully-operating company; and later managed

the Macon and Brunswick line.  He became general superintendent

of the Western and Atlantic Railroad in Georgia in 1873 and

eventually rose to Manager and Chief Engineer, though deteriorating

health would force him to resign and relocate to Florida in hopes of recuperation from overwork. 

Convinced that his lung condition was worsening, MacRae determined

to return to Wilmington and await the end of his days, though still a

relatively young man at 47 years of age.  He was visiting relatives in Augusta, Georgia on February 11, 1882 where “he was seized with congestive chill and died.”   William MacRae’s remains were

conveyed to Wilmington where he was buried in Oakdale Cemetery

after services in St. James Church.



Major Charles M. Stedman on General MacRae’s Bravery:

MacRae’s life and military exploits were remembered in an 1890 Confederate Memorial Day address by former MacRae Brigade

member  and Congressman (Major) Charles M. Stedman, delivered at

the Opera House (Thalian Hall) on Confederate Memorial Day in 1890. Major Stedman said of William MacRae that:

“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

the field of battle, his presence always steadied the men,

who seemed to imbibe his spirit. I know no how to

characterize this quality unless it

be termed the “mesmerism of bravery.”



General A. P. Hill, James I. Robertson, Random House, 1987

Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, W. Powell, UNC Press, 1986

Chronicles of the Cape Fear, James Sprunt, 1916

Confederate Military History, Vol. IV, Blue & Grey Press 1983

Confederate Veteran Magazine, September 1899, pp. 397-398