John Vautier of the 88th Pennsylvania wrote a regimental history of his regiment, History of the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War for the Union, 1861-1865, which was published in 1894. The book contains several good descriptions of battles, including the following.
In this excerpt, author John Vautier gives a brief overview of the 88th Pennsylvania’s experience at the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 17-18, 1864. He then turns the pen over to comrade Henry Booz, who provides a longer recounting of the battle. The 88th Pennsylvania, as part of the Second Brigade, Third Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, arrived near the battlefield on the evening of June 16, fresh from crossing the James River. After supporting Second Corps on the evening of June 17, the 88th and its brigade charged the main Confederate line on June 18, suffering 25 casualties from a starting number of around only 60 men. The rest, more than half, had straggled on the march in.
“A Sad Day’s Work for the Regiment”: The 88th Pennsylvania at the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 18, 1864.1
Left White Oak Swamp on the night of June 13 , marched all night, and encamped near Charles City Court-House, remaining here until daylight of the 16th, when we marched to the James River, and at two P.M. boarded the steamer John Brooks and crossed the river. Fell in and marched all night, halting at three A.M. After a very brief rest and an abbreviated breakfast, again fell in and took position supporting the 2d Corps, but in the night moved back out of range.
On the morning of the 18th the division moved to the front to assault the Confederate fortifications. Advanced through an orchard, over the railroad, took a hill within 200 yards of the enemy, and then made a grand swoop for his main line, all this under a fire that thinned the ranks at every step; but the line on our flank not marching as fast as the regiment, the charge, like a breaking wave, spent its force, and the men, disdaining to run, dropped behind a slight wattling fence and opened on the rebs. Still, the command was to forward: “Forward Baxter’s brigade;” but the experienced eyes of the veterans had taken the measure of those frowning forts, and, knowing that it was a hopeless job, not a man moved. At this time, John Ewing, the color bearer, seeing the men holding back, charged up to within a few yards of the works with his flag, and called the regiment to him. The boys, encouraged by this noble example, rallied up to the colors, only to be driven back with severe loss. Returning to the fence, the men opened on the enemy, and so effective was the fire that it was extremely unhealthy for a Johnny to show his head. In one of their cannon a swab had been left by a Confederate gunner; but they were not allowed to remove it, and after several attempts, they fired the swab into our line. Presently the rebels began to strengthen their works, and our marksmen practised on their shovels, hands, backs, or anything that offered a shot, one poor Johnny getting a Minie in his back from Harry Booz’s rifle that caused the dust to fly from his coat.
There were quite a number of expert marksmen in the regiment at this time, notably Harry Booz, John Wallace, Peter Shearer, Reuben Neider, George Armstrong, Morris Robbins, Harvey Myers, Mortimer Wisham, Frank Charles, Jonathan Wenzell, Charles Butler, William Fisher, and, in fact, almost every man was a good shot. But this was a sad day’s work for the regiment, among the killed being Lieutenant Sinn, John Beaumont, Pierson Miller, Henry Roth, and Henry Rhoads; while the wounded included James G. Clark, John Ewing, James Seifert, and Sergeant McChaliker.
We started on the march from Turkey Bend about four P.M. [of June 17, 1864] and continued until about eight A.M. of the 18th, then cooked breakfast near some negro troops; soon advanced in line of battle, the rebs falling back. Once we lay in line several minutes, the bullets whistling and the shells flying overhead, one bursting directly over us in the top of an oak-tree. I heard something dropping from one limb to another: it was the butt of a shell, about a pound in weight, and it fell on the ankle of one of our boys, who jumped up and danced around for a while, holding his ankle, thinking he was shot. Presently a shell burst directly over the back of a man next me and paralyzed him completely, there being no sign of life in him as they carried him back. That explosion seemed to lift me clear off the ground and partly stunned me; my hearing has never been good since. We soon advanced across an open field, our battery lining with us, one gun at a time, firing as fast as they could. We halted in that field and lay close for fifteen or twenty minutes, bullets and shells flying everywhere, Montgomery saying that they would hurt some one yet with their carelessness. We soon got orders to go for the railroad cut, and John Campbell and I were the first in, the cut being some fifteen or eighteen feet deep, a road bridge over it where we went in. When we were all there we got orders to double-quick to a little stream by a hill-side, a meadow with high grass intervening, the place being probably 200 yards from the railroad. Campbell and I had the advance, and when we got there we were amused to see the boys coming through the knee-high grass and tumbling in and over a concealed ditch some four or five feet wide. There was a steep hill thirty-five or forty feet high running north and south, and the stream was just at the foot of it. I climbed to the top, and, looking across a cornfield (corn five or six inches high), saw that the reb skirmishers had carried piles of rails, about a wagon-load in each place and about twenty yards apart, facing us, and beyond that about 175 yards was their main line, with a battery facing us.
After quite a while an aide instructed our commander to keep his men well in hand for a general charge at six o clock [p. m. on June 18, 1864]. Roll was called, and Ninesteel said that there were just sixty men with the colors. I heard the order coming down from the right to fall in, but I just climbed to the top of that hill and sat there looking back at the line forming. I made up my mind that we couldn’t go into that line of works, but I was going to make the best time for a rail-pile, anyhow, and if the line came up I would go along with them.
When the line got the order to “Forward,” I started, and when our bayonets cleared the hill I was half-way over. When the Johnnies saw our line of battle they opened a vicious fire, the air hissing with screaming shot and shell; but I flopped down behind my pre-empted pile of rails, soon being joined by Gilligan and Campbell.
In looking back at our advancing line, coming up with a hurrah, it was horrible to see the men falling by dozens, Montgomery going down, a grape-shot hitting his blanket; the next day we counted thirty-two holes in it. But the sergeant wasn’t the man to stay down; he was up at once. George Smith, of A, was hit in the leg. I heard it strike him and watched to see where he was wounded. He took off his equipments and went to the rear.
In looking back, I saw something fly in the air; I took it to be cotton; but a piece of brain the size of a thimble fell on my arm, a shell having struck one of the men in the face, and it was the scattered brains I saw. A part of the brain struck one of our boys in the eye, knocking him senseless. He returned to the regiment two or three weeks afterwards, a circle three and a half inches in diameter over one discolored eye.
About the time Smith was hit, the two boys, Devine and Ewing, came along with the colors. All this had happened while the two boys were coming from where the line had started. They passed on just to our right. Campbell remarked, “Just look at those boys; they will lose the colors; I can’t stand this; I’m going, too,” and away he went, followed by Gilligan and myself. They had reached a worm-fence sixty-five or seventy yards from the fort containing the four-gun battery. The fence was in a depression just a little lower than the field, fifty yards back, and running parallel with the reb line, some rag-weed and poison-ivy growing along it. Their line was on higher ground, and we silenced their battery at once. They tried to load, but it was no use; we would fire at their hands and arms and put a veto on their work. One piece had a rammer in, which they tried several times to remove; but we were superintending that, and at dark it was there yet, but they removed it in the night. For a while they did some peeping over the works; but we, having the sky for a background, could see a bird at that distance, so we let go every time a head appeared, aiming to hit the slope a foot or so in front of the eyes, and the head would disappear awful quick. Night soon closed down, clear but no moon, and we supplied ourselves with ammunition and strengthened our line, the neighbors up the hill doing the same work; but the shooting was kept up all night, no one getting much rest.
About eleven P.M., Lieutenant Lawrence came to us and asked if we knew what dark object that was moving about fifty yards in our front. We had not noticed anything, but could see it plainly when pointed out. We went out about twenty yards to ascertain its identity, but could not make it out, when Lawrence said he would fire at it anyhow, which he did, making an excellent shot in the darkness, and hit a cow that was grazing there, which bellowed fearfully and raised such a racket that the enemy thought we were charging them, for their whole line opened a hot fire at once, but they generally overshot us. An hour or so later I was watching for a shot, when farther to my right I saw the flash of a reb gun that appeared to be higher than the others, as though he were standing on the rifle-pits. I took a quick aim at his flash and caught him somewhere, for he yelled lustily for a bit. Directly we noticed some excitement among our boys, and found that the reb’s bullet had struck one of the Beaumont brothers in the forehead, killing him instantly.
We were tired and hungry, and before daylight [of June 19, 1864] we went back to the stream to cook coffee, and happened to get on the ground occupied by the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, who were fighting dismounted. They had received rations and had left lots of pieces of crackers in the boxes, and as we had coffee, we were feasting again. On my way back I found a patent carbine with plenty of ammunition, and used this weapon while we remained in this position, my shoulders being very sore from the concussion from my Enfield.
Through the day [of June 19, 1864] the rebs tried several plans to build peep-holes, so they could draw a bead on us. They first got a small camp-kettle with the bottom out, laid it on the works, then with a shovel threw earth around it. We let them amuse themselves a while, and when they got it built, we sent kettle and dirt to kingdom come with a few well-directed shots; but they tried it again with some stiff sods; set them on edge five or six inches apart, leaning the tops together, covering all with earth. We had so much fun with the pot that we let them finish this, then opened on it, every shot apparently moving a shovelful of dirt, until the hopes of the graybacks for a peep-hole were knocked into a cocked hat.
Towards the middle of the day William John Finley was standing looking over our works, when a reb fired at him from away off to our left, striking him in the shoulder. Then I kept a sharp lookout for reciprocity on William John’s account, and soon one of them carelessly exposed his back, and when he worked up far enough I let him have it, and Reuben Neider said there was one reb short. So Finley was promptly avenged.
About three P.M. [on June 19, 1864] the 9th Corps relieved us. There was a spring near us, the drain winding back across the cornfield, and through this slight ravine they came in and we went out, but in some places we were in sight of the Johns and had to run the gauntlet of their fire, three of the boys being wounded coming out. We found the main line had built works just back of the cut, our regiment on the left of the brigade.
There was an ice-house in our front, sunk in the ground, and though it was dangerous work, our boys would have their ice-water, balls or not. On the afternoon of the second day [June 20, 1864] a ration of whiskey and quinine was issued, and some of the 90th [Pennsylvania] getting too much, got fighting on the higher ground, where they mauled each other, the bullets meanwhile whistling all around them. Presently one got the other down and began kicking him, when the kicker got a ball in his leg, breaking the leg and breaking up the fight.
The next morning [June 21, 1864] we moved to the left and went to the front, but at night moved again, the next day going [June 22, 1864] to the Jerusalem plank road. There had been considerable fighting here, and as we marched up we came to the arms of a whole brigade that had been captured, they having grounded arms, and they lay there in line of battle farther than we could see. I had the small of the stock of my rifle nearly cut through by a ball on the 8th of May, and as I had fired 212 rounds while we were at the front, it had gotten very weak, so I exchanged my old gun for a good one. . . . This is my story of Petersburg, from memory, and I think you will find it substantially correct. Our boys were true blue; twenty-eight got to the fence, all of the 88th [Pennsylvania]. All the boys I have mentioned were daisies and had true grit, so were Joe Burris and Wes. Martin and Henry Lloyd and scores more whom I could name.
The above is Booz’s version of the operations on June 18, 19, and 20, 1864, and those who knew Harry will credit every word of it. The historian desires to say here that there were many splendid soldiers in the regiment, but he has omitted to mention a number of heroic actions that came under his own observation for the reason that hundreds of good soldiers who were just as brave would have had an injustice done them, because, unfortunately, the writer did not witness their soldierly conduct. In this battle the boys realized, as they had often done before, what a “soft thing” the Johnnies had on us, they fighting under cover of their stout earthworks, our boys with no other protection than the blue blouses that covered their stout and loyal hearts. Each man fired on an average nearly 200 rounds, but it is reasonable to suppose that most of these were wasted.
- Vautier, John D. History of the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War for the Union, 1861-1865. Philadelphia: Printed by J.B. Lippincott, 1894, pp. 191-195. ↩
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