“A Gloom Over the Entire Command”: The 117th New York at the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 15-17, 1864

   

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Editor’s Note: The 117th New York belonged to the First Brigade, Second Division, 10th Corps, Army of the James and had participated in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign as well as the Battle of Cold Harbor prior to moving back to Bermuda Hundred, then south across the Appomattox to attack Petersburg. This excerpt from J.A. Mowris’ 1866 book A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers describes the experience of the 117th New York at the Second Battle of Petersburg from June 15-17, 1864.

The 117th NY at the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 15-17, 18641

On arriving at Fort Monroe we again set out up the James. In the vicinity of Harrison’s landing we encountered an extensive pontoon, which had been laid for the Army of the Potomac, whose retreat the 10th Corps had covered, and who had marched across the Peninsula. A section of the pontoon having been removed for that purpose, the fleet passed.

The march of the 10th Corps troops, from the Cold Harbor line to Whitehouse had been severely rapid, but the distance was less than that passed more leisurely by the Army of Gen. Meade.

On the night of the 14th, we encamped a mile or two in rear of the Bermuda line. Soon after midnight, there was that commotion which precedes action.

Our Brigade soon formed and marched with the rest of the Division toward the Appomattox, which was crossed before day.

About sunrise, we gained a high bluff on the south side of the Appomattox. There the Brigade halted. Our rapid change of base revealed to all that we were running a race with the enemy, with Petersburg as our object.

Scarcely had the sun cleared the horizon, e’er the sound of musketry came from the front, an indication that the colored troops which had preceded us were engaged. These brave fellows, with little delay, carried the outer defensive lines and again advanced. A second line was assaulted and taken by them soon after. Two Divisions of the 18th Corps

were then sent forward, and most of the colored troops who had done so well in the morning were withdrawn.

Advancing, we met the loaded ambulances and the hobbling wounded. These black soldiers were highly elated, even those who were severely wounded, greeted their white compatriots with, “Tell you boys, we made um get;” “We druv em.” On that occasion, those who were politically the most conservative suddenly experienced an accession of respect for the chattel on this discovery of its “equal” value in a possible emergency.

We had come by a circuitous route on which account our brigade was the extreme left of the assaulting force on reaching the Heights. Between us and the enemy was a piece of woods, over and through which they were throwing shot and shell. Before noon, our line formed and advanced through the wood. At this stage, there was a good deal of delay. At length, a skirmish line was thrown out and advanced a little distance toward two or three redoubts, which were promptly taken, when about twenty pieces of field artillery which had been ordered up by Gen. Smith (Baldy) our division commander, were ranged along the outer border of the wood when they concentrated upon the works beyond such a storm of shot and shell as to appall the garrison. At the same time, the entire skirmish line charged across the intermediate valley, took and held the works on the heights. The officers from the 117th regiment, who were conspicuous in this assault, were Capt. A. R. Stevens and Capt. W. J. Hunt. The former in command of the skirmish line. They were in advance and the first officers in the captured works. It was a sharp contest and a splendid victory. Capt. Stevens, received a severe wound in the arm. Capt.

Hunt escaped without injury. They are both entitled to great credit for their gallantry on this occasion. The break made by this charge disconcerted and demoralized the troops in the defenses.

The enemy evidently had been unprepared for a forcible attack. They had been outstripped and outflanked, and when we arrived they were on their way from Cold Harbor. The defense of this point had accordingly devolved on a small force, mostly of undisciplined troops; there were both prisoners and dead in citizen’s dress, and some apparently just from the shop. The elaborate and formidable character of these works testified to the cheapness of our victory. That evening of the 15th of June we stood on the heights, and by the light of a brilliant moon contemplated the silent valley, arid beheld the nearly defenceless city. Why we did not then go down and possess them is the question, which occurred and recurred times innumerable, during the months of carnage which followed on that line. On the next day there was some skirmishing, but still on our side little doing, except the arranging of the 2nd and 6th Corps on our left. On the part of the enemy, however, there was every indication of activity.

Petersburg depot was a busy place. Frequently during the night the sound of arriving trains could be distinctly heard, and on the morning of the 16th field glasses revealed the incoming tide of gray backs. The enemy was evidently straining every nerve and crowding every avenue to avert any further reverse. General Butler, with Hinks’ Division, attempted to interrupt the progress of the enemy in the work of transferring his forces by advancing from the Bermuda line to cut and hold the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad. He

struck the road, destroyed it for a short distance, but was soon overborne and pushed back by superior numbers. The interruption was brief. This day Gen. Grant rode by inspecting the line. Toward evening there broke out on the left a very sharp musketry which was kept up for some time. It was occasioned by an attempt on the part of the 2d or 6th Corps to advance. It was attended with no satisfactory result.

The night passed quietly. Our skirmishers in the first vale had gradually crowded the enemy back over the first wooded eminence. On the 17th there was quiet on this part of the line. The regiment was not far in advance of the place occupied by it on the first night. It was lying on a high ridge, which was so bounded by ravines as to present an acute angle, not unlike that of an iron wedge as it would appear lying on its side; the point was on our right. A heavy rebel breastwork reversed by our men formed the crest of the eminence. The afternoon was quiet, a shot being rarely heard, and the enemy’s skirmish line so distant that the boys soon grew careless, exposing themselves above the breastwork, and some even walked over and laterally on the embankment. Capt. R. L. Stone of Co. B, an excellent man and officer, having just lit his pipe, was leisurely enjoying it and the scenery. Unhappily, while strolling about he mounted the embankment to view the prospect below. Our skirmishers had gone out so far and the mutual cessation of firing was so complete that few realized the position as dangerous ; those standing by the bank were exposed to the view of the enemy but were not so conspicuous. The Captain had traced our skirmish line and made some remarks concerning it and turned for a retrospect, when he fell. Already on reaching the

ground had the peculiar ashy hue which attends sudden death, spread over the surface. The body was already breathless and pulseless. The suspension of life had been instantaneous. On examination it was found that a minnie ball had entered the back part of the head, traversed the brain and lodged back of the left eye, which it protruded. The rebel sharp-shooter, or assassin, for under the circumstances he was scarcely less, must have been at a good distance as the report of the piece was not heard by us. This snatching away of one of our number while in the enjoyment of a sense of security deeply impressed all who witnessed it, and cast a gloom over the entire command.

The enemy, having since morning made a demonstration against the Bermuda line about sunset, the brigade, then under Col. Bell, started to re-enforce it. As we withdrew and much of the time during our march we heard the sound of heavy musketry. It was on account of an engagement induced by an attack on Burnside’s front and on the left of our late position. We halted in rear of and midway on the Bermuda line. Our brigade was now reformed, the 13th Indiana being mustered out by virtue of expired time, the 112th Regiment New York Yols. was added as substitute.

Source:

  1. Mowris, J.A., A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers. Hartford, Case, Lockwood, & Co., 1866, pp. 113-117

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