Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 3

   

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BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.

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In the Army of the Potomac, there were still those who doubted the abilities of the USCT and Smith was among them. However, knowing that speed was essential, he ordered the USCT to forge ahead and made no effort to outflank Dearing. It was to be a frontal attack. For their part, the blacks were eager to prove themselves and to gain some measure of revenge. Earlier in the year Confederates had massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow and at Poison Springs. Some prisoners taken at Wilson’s Wharf had been executed. For Confederates, fighting former slaves in open battle was a humiliating experience. For former slaves, it was a chance to gain revenge. War crimes were common in these engagements.

There were reasons to doubt the abilities of Hinks’ USCT division. Most of his men were untried, and varied in quality. Colonel Samuel A. Duncan, former commander of the 4th USCT, led the bigger of the two brigades present. His units, although having not yet fought together, were mostly well trained. The 4th USCT, raised in Baltimore, was something of a showpiece outfit and at nearly 1,000 men strong, this well-drilled regiment had a formidable appearance. The 6th USCT ostensibly could be relied upon. Much of the unit had been raised in Pennsylvania, where they were the first black regiment to parade in Philadelphia. They had been in Virginia since October 1863, and were well-drilled and had taken part in several raids and skirmishes. The 22nd USCT, formerly of Wild’s command, was led by Colonel Joseph B. Kiddoo, a veteran soldier and probably the best regimental commander in the entire division. The only weak link was the 5th USCT, a mostly Ohio based regiment. The men were as willing as any but their commander, Colonel James Conine, was unpopular. Although he took soldiering seriously, he was a political conservative and he kept his distance from his men. He used severe punishments, and even made one soldier act as a personal servant for three months, which reminded too many men of slavery. His enthusiasm for the 5th USCT was declining and in the coming days he faked an illness in order to be relieved of command. For these reasons the 5th USCT consistently found itself in the rear of Duncan’s marching and battle formations.

The other brigade, led by Colonel John H. Holman, commander of the 1st USCT, seemed like a more mixed bag. The outfit, nominally Wild’s brigade, had not fought together. The 1st USCT was the only combat tested outfit in the division. The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry had been forcibly converted into infantry. They were poorly trained, were in low spirits, and some of them went into battle with sabers and pistols. Jarrett Morgan, a private in the 4th USCT, recalled how the former cavalrymen had jeered at the infantry months earlier. Now Morgan and his fellow foot-soldiers laughed at the sight of the dismounted 5th Massachusetts. Lastly, the 10th USCT was not at full strength, many of its companies being posted at Fort Pocahontas. The most conspicuous absence was Wild himself, who remained at Wilson’s Wharf. This was unfortunate for Wild. His bravery at Seven Pines had kept him in command and another battlefield triumph might have shielded him from censure. Unbeknownst to Wild, Hinks, with some help from Holman, was already planning for Wild’s court martial once the Petersburg operation was over.

Hinks himself was as diverse in his abilities as his regiments. He was a supporter of Lincoln’s emancipation policy and a brave commander who had been side-lined for a year due to wounds. Yet he was also quarrelsome and could be rash. In the early hours of the march he drove his horse ahead of his troops and, coming to a ditch, he tried to jump it. Instead he was thrown from the saddle and reopened a wound he had received at Glendale, making it harder for him to command the division. Both of his brigade commanders were untried in their new positions, but Duncan, who was to lead the attack, did not demur. His face “pale but determined,” he quickly aligned his troops for the assault.[i] Holman had more trouble getting his men ready, as the poorly trained 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was unable to properly align for battle. Sometime before 8:00 a.m. the division was ready to attack.

Ferebee had chosen a strong position. His men were situated on a low ridge with 300-400 yards of open ground in front. A thick patch of marshy woods lay in the middle of the field bounding Cabin Creek. The woods would offer the USCT regiments some cover but, more importantly for the Rebels, they would disrupt the Union advance. Duncan’s men formed with the 4th and 6th USCT on the left, with the 22nd and 5th USCT on the right. Coming behind Duncan was Holman’s brigade. Duncan’s line advanced with a cheer as artillery batteries opened up in support. Among the artillery firing that day was Battery B of the 2nd USCT, one of the few black artillery units in the Union army. The most accurate fire came from Battery E of the 3rd New York, which fired above the heads of the troops as they marched forward.

The inexperience of the black troops led to confusion and their lines were broken up by the marshy underbrush, while Rebel fire was disciplined and accurate. Artillery took a great toll, with many shots hitting the trees, causing wood splinters to sting the men. As Hinks’s men emerged from the marsh, three companies of the 4th USCT charged without orders. Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers chased after his men, trying to call them back, but to no avail. They were repulsed with heavy losses and fled just as parts of the 6th USCT joined in the attack. William Law, color-bearer of the 6th USCT was among those to withdraw. Thrown back into line by Captain John McMurray, he fled again and threw the regiment’s flag to the ground even as McMurray beat him with the flat of his sword. Before June 15 Law was the model soldier of Company D. For this disgrace he was demoted. In the chaos the other blacks troops panicked, and some of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry fired on the 4th and 6th USCT. Colonel Henry S. Russell, commander of the 5th Massachusetts ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge only to fall with a grievous wound. Two other officers soon fell. The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry then broke for the rear.

On the Union right the 22nd USCT came under accurate artillery fire. Kiddoo had been ordered to wait for Duncan’s signal to attack, but it was clear that his position was far too exposed. He ordered his regiment to make a spirited advance, prompting the 5th USCT to charge with them. Yelling “Remember Fort Pillow,” they surged ahead, one brave flag bearer planting his colors on Dearing’s lines.[ii] The 4th North Carolina Cavalry, already running low on ammunition, quickly withdrew, leaving one twelve pound howitzer in the possession of the 22nd USCT. According to the Raleigh Confederate the regiment had lost only two men killed and  seven wounded although among the wounded was Ferebee. Regardless, Hinks, upon entering the Rebel lines, found his men bloodied but jubilant. Just as the battle ended a terrified local woman came out to profess that she had tried to convince the Confederates to fight elsewhere.

The action at Baylor’s Farm had lasted from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. and had mixed results. Union losses were heavy considering the forces involved, totaling around 300 casualties with the 4th USCT having lost over 120 men in a matter of minutes. Dearing had also withdrawn in good order and continued to skirmish with Hinks and Kautz, delaying their advance. Still, the battle did much to improve the morale of the untested and often derided USCT troops. The blacks boasted openly to members of the 117th New York and bellowed “Tell you boys, we made um get” and “We druv em.”[iii] The 117th New York official history recorded, “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.”[iv] Lieutenant S. Millet Thompson of the 13th New Hampshire admired their courage but was aghast . He wrote “a dead negro is the most ghastly corpse ever seen -, and their wounded are coming back shot in all sorts of ways, in legs, arms, heads and bodies, but hobbling along and bringing their guns with them. Negroes will keep on their feet, and move on, with wounds that would utterly lay out white men, and they stick like death to their guns. A white man severely wounded throws his gun away.[v]

Hinks’ men were now jubilant and confident. Corporal Wobey and sergeant Richardson of the 22nd USCT were the first men in the works and they were now feted as heroes by their erstwhile comrades. The men stroked their captured artillery piece as if it were a pet. Sergeant Charles Remond Douglass of the 5th Massachusetts, son of famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was ordered to take the gun and a guard of fifty men to show off the trophy. His men carried the gun around the Union lines and were cheered by the 134th and 148th Ohio, who were repairing roads and tending to the pontoon bridges. Although bloodied, Hinks’ men were seemingly eager for another go at the Confederates.

Back in Petersburg, Wise was organizing his men for what would be a desperate defense. As Wise mustered his troops he had the city’s bells tolled to call out the militia. Few turned up though since the city had seen many false alarms. Wise then became desperate. He brought the city’s convalescents to the front. Guards were posted along the roads with orders to arrest any soldier trying to leave the city. One such soldier was Lieutenant P. C. Hoy of the Mississippi Confederate Guard Artillery. The day before, Hoy had been granted a short leave to see his wife, who was visiting her father in Petersburg. After some consternation, he was allowed to visit his family and, after breakfast, reported to Colston, offering his services. Meanwhile, Wise notified Beauregard of Dearing’s reports, which included one Union prisoner claiming it was “on to Petersburg” in the Union camp.[vi] Wise was now promised reinforcements.

Beauregard immediately surmised that Smith’s advance was no ruse or probe, but a full attack on “the Cockade City.” He ordered Robert F. Hoke’s division, over 6,000 strong, to leave Drewry’s Bluff and to come to Petersburg.  The division crossed the James River that morning. The air was cool and the atmosphere relaxed. Major James H. Rion, commander of the 7th South Carolina Battalion, even paused to drink French brandy from a flask he kept handy. Hoke did not press on until noon, supposedly due to some confusion over orders. At 11:45 a.m. Beauregard informed Bragg that, without more men, he could not hold both Petersburg and the Howlett Line. When he asked Bragg which line he should hold Bragg wisely told him to decide for himself. Meanwhile, two of Hoke’s four brigades were able to secure rail transportation into Petersburg, but they would not arrive until nightfall. Wise would have to stand alone, but he did not flinch. To keep up his men’s spirits he stayed close to the front and continually put himself under fire.

On the other side, Smith was unnerved by the heavy losses at Baylor’s Farm, and he nervously asked Butler if Beauregard was sending more men to Petersburg. After the capture of Dearing’s line, Smith paused to realign his men. Hinks spent one hour reorganizing his troops and collecting the wounded after which he then marched south to the Jordan Point Road. Martindale and Brooks both stopped to form their men into battle lines as they moved along City Point Road. The heat was oppressive and there seemed to be little urgency in the movements. Each division arrived at Petersburg in a haphazard fashion. Hinks’ forward units had arrived at the Dimmock Line at 11:00 a.m. With the 1st USCT in the lead, having just defeated Dearing’s skirmishers along Bailey’s Creek. It was not until 2:00 p.m. that every unit in XVIII Corps was up and ready for battle. The 8th Connecticut led the way for Brook’s division, reinforced by elements of the 13th New Hampshire and the 92nd and 118th New York. In the pine forests before Brook’s division, there was particularly fierce skirmishing. In one such incident the 13th New Hampshire was ambushed by some Confederates but only one man, an Irishman, was lightly wounded. The Irishman collapsed into a heap, crying, yelling, and thrashing, his nervous breakdown amusing his comrades. The nearby Confederates, who had the advantage in the fight, seemed to be spooked by the incident and fled. Brooks’ division, hysterics aside, brushed away Confederate skirmishers and paused when they came within sight of the Dimmock Line.[vii]

[i]           Livermore, Days and Events, 356.

[ii]           George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1888), 236.

[iii]          Livermore, Days and Events, 356-58; J.A. Mowris, A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers (Hartford, Case, Lockwood, & Co., 1866), 114.

[iv]          Mowris, 114.

[v]           S. Millett Thompson, Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865: A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888), 382.

[vi]          Edwin Bearss and Bryce Suderow, The Petersburg Campaign: Volume 1: The Eastern Front Battles, June – August 1864 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2012), 48.

[vii]         Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 376; Thompson, 383-84.

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