Henry F. Charles Memoirs: The Battle of Boydton Plank Road – October 28, 1864

   

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in Charles Henry F.

Editor’s Note: Henry Fitzgerald Charles of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (dismounted) wrote a short memoir based on his diary from the Siege of Petersburg in 1864/65. A transcription of this memoir was placed online in 2001 as a part of the web site The Civil War Diary of Henry Fitzgerald Charles, by the web site’s owner and Henry F. Charles descendant John Neitz. Mr. Neitz made the appearance of this memoir at The Siege of Petersburg Online possible, and I thank him greatly for his cooperation.  The transcription on this page is copyrighted by John Neitz as a part of his web site and may not be reproduced without his express written consent.  All rights reserved.

The Battle of Boydton Plank Road – October 28, 18641

(BTC Editor’s Note: This portion of the memoirs discusses the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, of First Hatcher’s Run, fought in late October 1864.)

Then we had the fight at Boydton Plank Road. That only lasted till we had them cleaned out. We got ourselves a few prisoners and recovered all our wounded. From there we went to Hatcher Run. Here, hundreds were killed and most of the wounded died except those who could manage to get back after dark. The dead here were not buried until after the surrender. This happened in October 1864 and I went back about five months later in April 1865. The weathered bodies were in layers at some places and most were fleshless. They were gathered together sometime later and buried. How many there was, the Lord only knows.

Our lines at that place were only about 500 yards apart with two picket lines in between. The pits were so close that I seen one of our men throw a testament from his pit over to a Johnny. And we and the Rebs got along here until the negroes joined our line. From then on they always kept pecking at each other. The Rebs did not like the nigger and neither did the nigger like him. They both seemed to be afraid of each other and from that time on there was not much sociability along that part of the line. But down at Fort Hell on our side and Damnation on their side they had a trading station. Someone would holler, “Have anything to trade, Yank,” that’s what they called us. Then someone would reply that he had a rich prize and they would meet at the agreed spot called trading station. Sometimes, it would be only one or two and I seen as high as a dozen from each side there at one time. It was a kind of a truce among ourselves and it was never violated. The Rebs’ trading goods generally consisted of tobacco, which our boys were glad to get. The Rebs mostly wanted coffee and sometimes salt, which we had a surplus of. They had other trading stations, but there were orders issued that stopped it. I only traded twice – I did not like their good looks.

One day there was an order sent to advance our picket line and to straighten out a curve that was in it. Their line and ours was about a half a mile apart. There was a ravine between our lines that you could not see in and we were afraid that the Johnnies would work their way in it and surprise us. At some places, we had to get within three hundred yards of their lines, almost up to their pits. We all dreaded to be out in front and I am sure no man would escape, as their picket would hear us. We had to pull our timbers up slowly and then put one on top of the other. They were fastened good, and ground scraped and shoveled over them. This way we built a fence about fifteen hundred feet long and there wasn’t a shot fired at us. After we came in, about a hundred others went out with picks and shovels. They dug pits about eight feet square and two feet deep for the pickets to lay in. About two o’clock in the morning, the details had the picket lines advanced almost to the Johnnies’ pits without a shot being fired from the other side. It was remarkable we had not all been killed, bit the next morning we knew why. While we were working so hard to build the abutments and pits, they had retreated about a half mile and were reinforced with artillery. It was about dark that evening when they started an artillery duel. They shot the hollow shells with time fuses on them. You could easily see them coming in after dark and they came like rain. You could see the fire sputtering at the fuse like a falling star, and when you saw one coming you could move to the left or right as the case might require.

We were relieved and fell to the rear, where I was put on detail to help dig wells. Every two companies would have a well in partnership. Water had been very scarce and we had to go from ten to twelve feet deep and then we would hit plenty of water. We had trouble to keep the gravel and sand out of the first two feet. Then we would hit loam and sand, then about four feet of yellow clay. The balance would be hardpan and the deeper we got, the harder the pan would be. After we got through that, there would be plenty of water. But we always had to be raking the sand out, but we corrected this by setting a cracker box in the bottom.

There was a regiment laid on a hill; they dug or tunneled a well that was 101 feet deep. They had steps down all the way. I was down once and I concluded I would rather fetch my water somewhere else, even if it was further, and so I did.

When we build Fort Hell, that was all after night; they would have one company one night and another the next night. I suppose it was about 90 to a hundred feet long. It was open behind and [in] front it was all solid with logs and sandbags, with only parapets for the guns. We filled bags and put them on top of each other crossways. We managed to build it for good protection. It was awful hard work. I was not as well as I should have been, so I deserted and quit. I pulled for camp but could not get my gun, as they had a guard over all the guns. So I left without it. When I got near camp, there was a company who had their guns stacked, so I took one with me. I thought it a pretty trick that when my company came in they had an extra gun and did not know what had become of the owner. They had a roll call and all answered to their names, so they all had to fall in with their guns. This they did so they could catch the culprit that had scampered, but it didn’t work, for all fell in with guns. We all shirked whenever we could and they wanted to catch one and make an example of him.

Now we returned to Hatcher Run. We had some dense fighting all afternoon in the woods till about five o’clock, then we got in a field where we were ordered to feed our horses and cook some coffee and then go on picket duty. Others had to bridle the horses and hunt for water. The first thing we knew, the Rebs were on three sides of us and pecking it into us with musketry and artillery. The orders were not to hold the horses, but to fall in line and help the infantry, which the Rebs were driving back. The field was full of stampeding horses and the Rebs’ artillery balls were exploding all around us. There was a man aside of me jammed in between the horses so that his feet were under one and his head laid on top of the other. I was with the cavalry and did not feel too comfortable on the ground, so got hold of four horses and made for the woods. It was each man for himself. We were all mixed up when it got dark. It was full of brush and I got out to the road, but had to get off because of the infantry, as they had the privilege of the road. Went back into the woods again, heard troops moving and I sneaked up to see who they were, and how glad I was when I saw they were ours. I got on the road again, but it soon curved right back into the woods. I had only two of the four horses I started with, lost them in the woods among the big stampede.

Source:

  1. The Civil War Diary of Henry Fitzgerald Charles. 2001. 17 May 2012 <http://www.dm.net/~neitz/charles/index.html>.  These memoirs are reproduced with the written permission of John Neitz, and may not be reproduced without his express written consent.  All rights reserved.

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