MHSM Papers V5: Operations Against the Weldon Railroad, August 18, 19, 21, 1864 by Captain Charles H. Porter

   

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in Volume 5

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XII

OPERATIONS AGAINST THE WELDON RAILROAD, AUGUST 18, 19, 21, 18641

BY

CAPTAIN CHARLES H. PORTER
Late 39th Massachusetts Infantry

Read before the Society December 13, 1880

OPERATIONS AGAINST THE WELDON RAILROAD, AUGUST 18, 19, 21, 1864

There are four railroads which centre at Petersburg, viz.: the City Point from City Point, Virginia, to Petersburg; the Norfolk and Petersburg; the Petersburg and Weldon, running north and south, and making a part of the Atlantic Coast line to the South; the South Side, running to Lynchburg and East Tennessee, intersecting at Burkesville Junction the Richmond and Danville Railroad, an interior Southern line, which runs from this point to Richmond in a northeasterly direction, and south via Danville on to the far South. The operations around Petersburg, which closed on the 18th of June, 1864, left in our possession the first two, and least important, of the railroad lines before mentioned. The necessary supplies for the Confederate Army, then assembled at Petersburg, were as easily transported as ever. Hence naturally enough the general commanding the Federal Army knew that the possession of these last two railroads was vital to the Confederates, and, if they were in our control, the city would be ours, and Richmond too, with its slender line of communication, would quickly fall.

The 18th of June, 1864, was the last day of the direct assaults upon Petersburg, and for three days our troops were given a little rest. On the 21st of June, 1864, the first attempt at extending our lines by the left was made. The Second Corps, under the command of General D. B. Birney, and the Sixth Corps, commanded by General H. G. Wright, made a grand movement to the left. The Second Corps occupied the right. Its right was upon the Jerusalem Plank Road, in close connection with the Fifth Corps, Griffin’s Division of that

corps holding the lines to the Plank Road, and building at this point Fort Sedgwick, more familiarly known as Fort Hell. The Second Corps was supported on the left by the Sixth Corps, the support being very close and complete. The advance rested for the night in most excellent condition, and thus far the movement was completely satisfactory. On the 22d of June the Second Corps took up its direct advance upon the city, and the Sixth Corps stood fast. The advance reached a point near the Johnson house. The ground is quite level, sloping gently from the Johnson house to a brook or run which runs nearly the entire length of the lines of Petersburg, broken here and there by ravines. The enemy very closely watched their movements, and two divisions of Hill’s Corps, commanded by Generals William Mahone and Cadmus M. Wilcox, were sent to check them. The woods were quite thick, and filled with a heavy growth of underbrush. The two divisions detailed were to act together, and still were independent of each other. Mahone formed his men in the woods and in a ravine near the Johnson house, and prepared to move directly on the Second Corps. His line was formed at right angles to the line of march of the Second Corps, and he was just far enough from the left to take them in flank and cause the utmost dismay by his movements. General Wilcox marched his men down the Halifax Road to a point between the Jones house and the Johnson house, and then took a blind wood road which led him directly in rear of the Sixth Corps. His line of march was easterly and also at right angles to the line of the Sixth Corps. There may be some question of this statement. I give it, however, upon the authority of an officer who served temporarily upon General Wilcox’s staff. General Wilcox did not seem to take in the situation at all. Here was one of the finest divisions of the Confederate Army occupying a position entirely in rear of the troops operating upon the left flank of the Federal Army. He captured prisoners from the Sixth Corps who left the lines to

go to the rear to get water. This position, however, did him no good, for he did not take any advantage of it, but expressed himself as wondering what he was sent there for, and thought it was but proper to get out of this position as soon as possible. He did make a show, however, for he sent one of his regiments forward, and after a short march it encountered a regiment of the Sixth Corps. It seems that the men who had gone back for water not returning had created an uneasiness in the mind of the commander of the extreme left of the corps, and he had placed a portion of his command faced to the rear. The regiment of Wilcox’s command, finding itself opposed, withdrew, and after a little while his whole division withdrew to the Halifax Road and thence to the lines. We left Mahone just ready to make his flank march. After sending word to Wilcox that he was ready to attack, and again that he was attacking, and requesting his assistance, he made his march upon the left flank of the Second Corps and met with most decisive results. So complete was the success of this movement that the lines were rapidly contracted, and at nightfall the enemy had regained almost the entire ground occupied by the two corps, and the first movement against the Weldon Railroad had resulted in failure. General Mahone was greatly elated with his success, but it fell far short of his anticipation. He positively asserts that, had Wilcox moved when he did, one of two very important results would have been accomplished, — (1st) the siege of Petersburg would have been raised, or (2d) the Confederate line of works would have been thrown forward and turned abruptly to the south, effectually guarding the Weldon Railroad as far as the second swamp, and that, when the Federal commander should again turn his attention to the Weldon Road, he would have to make a very great detour, which would afford a great chance for a break to be made in the attacking force. I am not prepared to admit either conclusion, though it seems to me that the second one is quite reasonable, while the first is almost un-

tenable, as no one can believe for a moment that so small a force, not exceeding eight thousand men, could have accomplished any such results, especially against two corps like the Second and Sixth, together with the other commands of the Army of the Potomac then not engaged. At the close of these operations the Second Corps occupied the line of works on the west of the Jerusalem Plank Road until relieved upon the 26th of June, 1864, by Crawford’s Division (3d) of the Fifth Army Corps. The Second Corps went into reserve. Soon after, however, operations in the Valley called the Sixth Corps away. The extreme left was very quiet indeed, and remained so until the 15th of August, when the Fifth Corps was relieved throughout the entire line by the Ninth Corps, and went into position in the rear along the line of the Jerusalem Plank Road.

After the failure of the mine the next move was to possess the Weldon Railroad. The tactics and strategy were exactly the same as those used on the 30th of July. The Second Corps with the cavalry and portion of the Tenth Corps were sent over the James to the north bank at Deep Bottom, and advanced directly on to Richmond. This movement had another purpose. It having come to the knowledge of General Grant that it was General Lee’s purpose to reenforce Early in the Valley with three divisions, General Grant made this attack to prevent the same, and it is claimed that it was successful in detaining two of the divisions at Richmond, only one being sent to Early. The movement was begun and carried on from the 13th of August until the 18th and 19th of the same month. Every appearance of determination was given to this movement, — skirmishers were boldly pushed out, troops moved up to the most advanced points, and demonstrations of great strength were made. The deception was excellent. Lee, fully believing that this was another move to be checkmated, hastened over to his left and assumed command in person. This work, however, was a veil to cover the movements on our left.

On the 16th of August orders were issued from headquarters of the Army of the Potomac for the Fifth Army Corps to attack, occupy, and hold the Weldon Railroad, the movement to be made on the 17th.(1) For some reason, after the orders were all issued and the troops called up to make the march, it was suspended until the 18th, when it began.(2) The Fifth Corps was commanded by General G. K. Warren, and consisted of four fine divisions, commanded respectively by General Charles Griffin (1st Division), General R. B. Ayres (2d Division), General S. W. Crawford (3d), and General Cutler (4th). Each of these divisions had three brigades, with the exception of the 4th, which had but two. There were twelve batteries of artillery, of four guns each, attached to the corps. On the morning of the 18th the corps was turned out at four o’clock A. M., and took up its line of march for the railroad at five A. M. There was no cavalry attached to the corps, excepting a small squad used for headquarter escort and to furnish the necessary number of orderlies and messengers.(3) General Griffin took up the line of march at five o’clock A. M., with the 1st Brigade of his division, commanded by Colonel Tilton, in advance, and moved directly south for one and three quarters miles, until he reached a road running directly west. This road leaves the Jerusalem Plank Road, down which the corps moved, at a point known as Temple’s, and runs nearly straight in a westerly direction, crossing the Weldon Railroad at Six Mile House, two and one quarter miles from the Plank Road. This point is sometimes called Yellow Tavern, or Globe Tavern, but its proper name is Six Mile House. Griffin advanced up this road. The order of march was Griffin, Ayres, Crawford, Cutler. The corps artillery was distributed

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(1) War Records, vol. 42, part 2, p. 212.

(2) The delay was made under the express orders of General Grant. See despatches, 88 W. R. 212, 251.

(3) Kautz’s Division of Cavalry picketed the left of the Federal line. The pickets from the 3d New York Cavalry advanced with Griffin’s skirmishers to the Weldon Railroad.

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for this day among the divisions, three batteries to each division, and on the march the artillery of each division followed directly on after the infantry; no wagons went with the corps, and only one half of the ambulance train. The advance of the 1st Division was continuous, no halts of any moment being made, and no enemy being found, until our advanced flankers felt the rebel outposts at the Gurley house, a large, square, white house, with very red brick chimneys at each gable. The day was one of those exceedingly close, sultry, August dog-days, well known to every one who has served in Virginia, extremely debilitating and exhausting to both man and beast. The march was quite slowly executed, doubtless delayed by the weather, although the road was in very good condition, the soil being a light sandy loam, as is usual about Petersburg. At the Gurley house, three quarters of a mile from the railroad, Griffin halted his flankers, and then formed a line of battle at the house before mentioned, the 1st Brigade in two lines of battle on the right of the road with its left resting on the road. The 2d Brigade was similarly formed with its right resting on the road, and the 3d Brigade was similarly deployed in support. The small body of cavalry and the skirmishers, one regiment from each of the two leading brigades, then advanced, supported by the line of battle, and after an advance of three quarters of a mile swept over the railroad at the Six Mile House, driving in the enemy’s line of outposts, and occupied the road with but very little loss. The road was occupied at, or about, 9.30 o’clock A. M. General Dearing had command of the enemy’s outposts, and in a series of despatches to General Beauregard at Petersburg gives the time of the advance reaching the road as 10.15 A. M.(1) The time necessary to communicate the knowledge of the advance to the reserve picket and then by messenger to the force under General Dearing will consume the forty-five minutes allowed. Immediately on arriving upon the road General Griffin faced

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(1) 87 W. R. 857.

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one brigade to the north and advanced his skirmishers towards the city. The ground about the Six Mile House was cleared and quite level, and for about 800 yards north sloped away gently to a heavy belt of woods about 500 yards in depth, where another clearing had been made. These woods were continuous to the Aiken house east, where it was cleared. From the Aiken house to Fort Davis, the extreme left of our line, it was heavily wooded. There were two houses upon this land, one owned by Dunlock, to the east, one owned by Lennear, on the southerly side; and quite 1200 yards distant south was the “White” house.(1) This was another farmhouse. The farms were cultivated to corn, and the stalks were well advanced, as might be expected. The remaining two brigades of Griffin’s Division at once turned their attention to the tearing up of the rails, putting the sleepers in piles with rails on top and then setting them on fire. The 2d Division (Ayres) had now arrived on the ground, and was immediately formed in line of battle faced to the north, one brigade, the 1st, on the right, or east side of the railroad track, the 2d Brigade on the left of the track, and the 3d Brigade, which was composed of one regiment, the 15th New York Heavy Artillery, was in reserve. These troops took up the immediate advance towards Petersburg and advanced about 1000 yards in a northerly direction. On this movement a portion of the artillery belonging temporarily to this division, the 3d Massachusetts Battery under command of Colonel Martin, accompanied the troops, moving up the Halifax Road, a wide turnpike road running parallel with, and very close to, the railroad and directly into the city. General Ayres had of course thrown out skirmishers, and, as they reached a point near the second clearing before spoken of, they became quite seriously engaged. Reports were sent to the line of battle that

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(1) The Blick house was on the westerly side of the railroad and is often quoted as the point where our troops crossed the road. The clearing was on both sides of the Halifax Road and railroad.

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the enemy were moving in force against the troops. This advance of the Fifth Corps had been made in obedience to a note sent by(1) General Grant to General Warren, through General Meade, by which he was directed to move directly up the road with all the force at his disposal and occupy and hold all the ground so obtained. In order to meet this advance and to drive off the Federal troops from the railroad, General Heth was directed to form his division and move with all the force at his command against the enemy. General Heth had four brigades of infantry and eight pieces of artillery. He made his advance directly down the Halifax Road and railroad (south), using three brigades in the advance and one in reserve. The artillery, eight pieces of Pegram’s Battalion, went into position near the Jones house, which was situated at the junction of the Vaughan and Halifax roads, one and five eighths miles from the Six Mile House north. Heth, perceiving that the Federal right was entirely in the air, and at present in no way of being reenforced, caused his left brigade to advance at the right oblique and envelop the same. The 3d Division, under General Crawford, having arrived on the ground near the Dunlock house, was immediately advanced in line of battle, the 1st Brigade on the left, the 3d Brigade on the right, with the 2d Brigade in reserve, to the support of the 2d Division, now quite heavily engaged on their left. The 3d Division advanced in line of battle into the woods, and then, finding that their position was not correct, moved by the left oblique and made close connection with the 1st Brigade of Ayres’ Division. No skirmishers had been pushed out by this division, and, as they advanced by the left oblique, the men could see the Confederate line of battle moving by the right oblique across the second clearing. The 3d Division had just time to make the close connection required, when the enemy’s line of battle reached the edge of the woods not 100 yards distant from where they were. With colors flying, the

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(1) Despatch to General Meade. 88 W. R. 202.

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enemy moved on steadily and firmly, expecting to strike the exposed flank of the 2d Division. A far different reception awaited them. The 1st Brigade of the 3d Division could not be restrained and they opened fire at close range, and the effect was tremendous. The enemy’s line was brushed away like leaves, and they fled back dismayed, returning a volley, however, before they broke. Owing to the extreme closeness of the contending forces these volleys were very fatal, and many killed and wounded was the result of this few minutes’ close engagement. A rattling volley by the 2d Brigade now cleared our front, and the right flank was safe. Confusion came from another source, however. The 2d Brigade of the 2d Division, Colonel Dushane commanding, was sorely pressed in a direct attack upon them, and being unable to stand their ground, slowly gave way, and for a few moments it seemed as if the Confederate troops would succeed in piercing our centre, and from this success great confusion might ensue. This breaking of the 2d Brigade caused great danger to the two pieces of artillery, which, however, were drawn off by hand by the artillerymen. The 1st Brigade of the 2d Division, finding that their connection on their left was broken, also fell back, which confusion was in turn continued to the 1st Brigade of the 3d Division, and this part of the line, now free from the enemy’s attack, retreated directly to the rear. Fortunately during the events above described, the 4th Division (General Cutler) had arrived on the ground, and one brigade, the 1st, under General Bragg, had formed on the edge of the woods with its left resting on the railroad track, and the 2d Brigade (Colonel Hoffman) had been despatched at the urgent request of General Ayres to his assistance and, moving up rapidly to the assistance of the 2d Brigade of the 2d Division, soon restored the chances of battle, and our lines, again intact, advanced up to their old position from which they had been driven. The 15th New York Heavy Artillery had never been engaged before, but

their steadiness and behavior was excellent. In the advance of the 2d Division again to the front the enemy showed some disposition to fight, but it was of short duration, and at nightfall affairs had settled down on to quite a calm basis. Orders were given to intrench, and the troops set about the same with great alacrity, so that by nine P. M. the line was quite strong and one that could not easily be carried. The general line of works faced north. General Ayres retained the brigade from the 4th Division and put it into his lines and, to cause security against a flank attack, he refused his extreme left for about 100 yards. While the 2d and 3d Divisions, as before mentioned, were having their engagement, the 1st Division had not been idle. Setting fire to the piled sleepers and railroad iron, they effectually destroyed this part of the railroad. When the 2d Division’s line became seriously involved, the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division was formed in line of battle, faced north, and made a slight advance; but, as the troops of the 4th Division restored the line of battle, these troops returned to the railroad. Forming a line of battle facing west, the whole division, with the 1st Brigade on the right, the 3d Brigade in the centre, and the 2d Brigade on the left, advanced about 100 yards and then intrenched in one continuous line. The ground opposite the 1st Brigade was broken by quite a heavy ravine; on the left it was quite level. The men went to work with a will, and their line was soon very complete. The right and left flanks were refused. The corps artillery, which had been assigned to divisions, was now gathered together and occupied a line directly in rear of the 1st Division line, extending north to a point about 200 yards from the Yellow Tavern, thence turning easterly across the railroad track to about 100 yards beyond it. The extreme right (east from the railroad track) was held by the 9th Massachusetts Battery. Picket firing was kept up until quite late. The time of the opening fires upon the 2d Division by Heth’s troops was about 12 M., the heaviest engage-

ment about 1.30 P. M., lasting about one hour. There were some losses by capture from the 2d and 3d Divisions, but very few, however.

In addition to the refusal of his left by General Ayres, he had succeeded in making quite an abatis in his front by slashing the trees. General Crawford had ordered nothing of the kind on his front and had neglected to make a refusal of his right, which was entirely in the air and communicated with nothing. In order to make the right flank of General Crawford connect with something, General Willcox, of the Ninth Corps, had been ordered to report to General Warren on the night of the 18th. The only thing that had been done was the pushing of the skirmish line of the Ninth Corps across the intervening country from Fort Davis, a distance of about two miles, which was accomplished, and the communication by skirmish line was complete.

The Confederates were quite surprised by the movements of the morning, which were entirely unexpected by them. As before stated, General Dearing telegraphed to General Beauregard, who at this time was in the immediate command of the defence of Petersburg, that the enemy had advanced on the Weldon Railroad. His first message stated that there were two(1) brigades, and General Beauregard, acting on this information, detached only two brigades under command of General Heth. However, this incorrect knowledge was further improved by information that two divisions of the Fifth Army Corps were on the railroad. General Beauregard in great wonder telegraphed(2) General Lee to know if the Fifth Army Corps had withdrawn from his (Lee’s) front. The supposition is fair to be made that, while the Confederates knew that the corps had been relieved from the lines in front of Fort Mahone, they supposed that it had gone to the right and was acting with the Second Corps. This diversion by the right was supposed by the enemy to be a body of troops sent to prevent Lee from sending

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(1) 87 W. R. 857.

(2) Ibid.

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troops to Early, who was then in the Valley near Winchester, to which place he had retreated after his failure to capture Washington in July. When night closed, however, General Beauregard knew that his troops had not been able to regain the road, which was held in force, and that the troops were intrenching. There were frequent alarms during the night on the lines occupied by the 2d and 3d Divisions, Fifth Corps. All such alarms were wholly unnecessary, as only the advanced picket of the enemy remained in our front. The entire division under Heth had withdrawn into the works near the Lead Works and about two miles from our lines, and part of his command put in reserve ready to resist the feared advance of the Federal infantry in a direct attack from their old lines in front of the city. The Ninth Corps had been relieved in part by an extension of the Eighteenth Corps to the left, and Mott’s Division of the Second Corps had moved from Deep Bottom and completed the same. The only part of the Ninth Corps that reached the Fifth Corps were the skirmishers, and their connection was not completed until an early hour on the 19th.

August 19, 1864. The morning opened dull and rainy, with the troops in good spirits. No changes were made, the troops of their own accord strengthening the field works, making them quite strong. Nothing happened until about three o’clock, when the enemy showed considerable activity, the pickets firing and showing quite a bold front. General Lee determined to drive the enemy from the road, as the possession of this line by our troops was of quite serious moment to him. To accomplish this result he assembled two divisions, under the command of General Heth and General Mahone. General Heth was to make a direct attack upon the lines, moving directly south. He had four brigades, with eight pieces of artillery from Pegram’s Battalion. Six of these pieces were on the west of the road near the Jones house, at the junction of the Halifax and Vaughan Roads, and two pieces were on the

east of the railroad. General Mahone, with his old brigade under General Wesiger, Colquitt’s Brigade, and part of Clingman’s Brigade, moved directly down the Halifax Road to a road turning easterly, leading into the road which runs from near the Johnson house to, and by, the Aiken and Gurley houses. This road passes the Aiken house about five eighths of a mile east of the railroad. General Mahone had been quick to discover that the right flank of the Fifth Corps was not connected with anything and that he was opposed only by a skirmish line. The Ninth Corps, which had been ordered to fill the gap from Fort Davis, had not as yet reached their destination, although it was now two P. M. This corps was to move on a road that leads west from the Plank Road by the Aiken house and intersects the road that Mahone moved on at the Aiken house. General Meade had visited General Warren and inspected his position from the top of the Six Mile House, and had returned to his headquarters over this road. While moving up to the railroad he had met Potter’s Division of the Ninth Corps en route to the Weldon Railroad. It is fair to say that undoubtedly the extremely wet day prevented the prompt arrival of these reinforcements. The troops of the Fifth Corps, finding that it was all quiet and not expecting an attack, disposed of themselves in every way, trying to keep as dry as possible, little thinking of the fate in store for them. Four o’clock was the hour agreed upon between Mahone and Heth as the time at which the flanking column would be in position, and almost to the minute Mahone’s troops reached the skirmish line and drove them back. Then turning in the thick woods to the west they moved in column directly upon the exposed right flank of the Federals. General Warren was uneasy in his own(1) mind about this right flank, and talked the matter over with Colonel Wainwright, Chief of Artillery, and issued orders to Generals Ayres and

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(1) General Warren noted the fact that Bragg’s line of pickets were altogether too far in the rear and ordered it rectified.

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Crawford if they were attacked in front and were unable to resist the front attack (which was somewhat expected for these divisions) to break to the rear, opening to the right and left and uncovering the corps artillery which was massed, as before described, on east and west of the railroad and on the track in advance of the Six Mile House. The artillery was to open upon the enemy and stop their advance. While the 3d Division was quietly passing the afternoon, the officers at headquarters were informed that the expected attack upon the front was being made, for General Heth at the appointed time attacked quite vigorously. His artillery opened fire and the troops pushed up. This, however, was of little avail, as the 2d Division easily held their ground, the pickets stubbornly contesting the ground, and only after a severe fight retreating upon the main line. This defence by the pickets was so stubborn that it quite demoralized the direct attack for some time, and, when the main line was reached, a volley quickly given drove the enemy back in confusion. This attack was principally directed against the 2d Division. The 3d Division got into line behind their intrenchments, but their pickets were not even driven in. Mahone up to this time had not been heard from. The butchers of the Fifth Corps were slaughtering cattle just upon the edge of the woods in the rear, when the pickets of the Ninth Corps came tumbling in, and said that the enemy were advancing on their front. These woods were so dense that nothing could be seen of them. General Warren and Colonel Wainwright rode out to the Dunlock house and looked for the enemy’s advance, but nothing was discernible. After a short time, from the confusion in the woods and the appearance of a line of troops in column moving along, Colonel Wainwright arrived at the conclusion that the enemy was moving through these woods upon the 3d Division. However, the belief was so strong that these men were the missing Ninth Corps that General Warren would not allow the artillery to open fire. It took only a few moments

now to show the exact nature of this column, for by deflecting too far to the south the line came into the opening, and it was discovered that these troops were a flanking force of Confederates, and that a considerable number of them were between the artillery and the 3d Division of the Fifth Corps. The men at once sprang to their guns and opened an exceedingly rapid fire upon them at 800 yards range. This drove them into the woods, and our men still fired at them. How was it now with the line of the Fifth Corps? The very first intimation that the men of the 3d Division had that all was not well was when the spherical case from their rear was bursting in their midst. They knew that the corps artillery was massed in their rear, and that something must have happened to make them fire upon their own comrades. At this time the firing in the front began again, and our pickets were again attacked. In all this doubt and hesitation there was but one thing to be done, and that was to seek cover from the fire of our thirty guns. The men sprang over the breastworks and took them in reverse, believing that their own pickets could hold the enemy in check, and realizing that the danger was from the rear. The suspense was soon broken, when a line of Confederate infantry came tumbling in upon the troops. All was now confusion. Without leaders, the men were completely demoralized. In these dark and dismal woods, dismayed by the fire of our own guns (the reason for which was now explained), the men made but a short resistance. The enemy, quick to perceive that large captures could be made, rushed upon the troops and, finding them without formation, but with every man looking out for himself, captured them without much difficulty, and, sweeping to the rear, this flanking column under Mahone took nearly the whole of two brigades of the 3d Division prisoners. The 1st Brigade of the 2d Division, commanded by General Hayes, was also confused by this attack, and a few men from its right flank regiment, together with the brigade commander, were taken prisoners.

To add to the confusion, the enemy renewed its front attack, but met with little better success than before. The rapid artillery fire(1) of our batteries proved to the Confederates that they could not advance further to the south, and, quite content to retreat into their own lines with more prisoners than there were men in their own column, they fell back towards their own lines, formed into column and moved up the Halifax Road with over 2700(2) prisoners, almost entirely from the 3d Division. The commander of the two pieces of Confederate artillery on the east of the railroad, seeing so large a body of men advancing and in considerable confusion, was led to suspect that Mahone had failed in his attack and was being driven back. Ordering his men to stand to their guns and be ready to open fire, to his great joy he discovered that the attack was very successful, and that the great number of blue coats that he saw were prisoners, the result of the flank movement. Affairs in the 2d Division were very much better, thanks to the enterprise and courage of its able commander. General Ayres, the moment that knowledge of the flank attack reached him, rode down to his command, and, repulsing the direct attack of Heth again, changed the position of his troops, forming them at right angles to his original line faced to the east, caused Hoffman, the brigade loaned from the 4th Division, to march back in retreat, and then with his troops opened fire on the enemy. General Winthrop, perceiving that the 1st Brigade could be made to preserve its organization almost intact, assisted General Ayres, and thus by the bravery, coolness, and daring of the 2d Division commander the disaster was stayed. As soon as he perceived that the danger was over, he pushed his men out into the original line of works. The enemy under Heth was quick to discover

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(1) The troops of White, Potter, and Willcox—Divisions Ninth Corps—formed in line of battle and charged the enemy. These troops behaved very gallantly, and with the artillery fire entirely broke the force of Mahone’s advance.

(2) This number is given by General Lee. The actual number is less than 2000.

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the disaster to the Federals, and was pushed up a third time to attack the lines. This third advance was quite easily repelled. The men of the 3d Division, such of them as had not been captured, every man being for himself, turned in all directions for escape. The experience of the individual was about the experience of the whole. Now dodging behind trees, running now east, then turning west, those of this fated division that were left finally got the true direction and came out at the edge of the clearing looking towards our artillery. A most welcome sight here met the eyes of these fugitives. A division of the Ninth Corps moving west on the road from the Plank Road by the Aiken house, hearing the firing and seeing that there was trouble on our right flank, forming in line of battle advanced quickly upon the enemy. This advance these fugitives saw. It was made by the 1st Division, Ninth Corps, under command of General White. No more welcome sight could have greeted them than this, and the men took heart, for they knew that, whatever had been lost, all would be quickly regained, and that our position upon the railroad would be secure. These remnants of this 3d Division were finally rallied near the Dunlock house. Conceive, if you please, one little knot gathered together, about twenty-five in number, all that at that time could be collected of a regiment that but yesterday carried three hundred and fifty muskets into the first day’s fight, whose commander, a member of this Society well-known to you all, was most grievously wounded on that day. Imagine their disgust at the end of a few moments to be marshalled by orders from their division commander to occupy their old line of works. It was done, but with exceedingly sore hearts and unwilling feet. But few slept that night, and the weary hours rolled on, and it seemed as if daylight would never come to bring relief to the suspense and dread that hung over the command that night. One of the worst things about this capture was that many of the prisoners were taken from the 3d Brigade of the 3d Division,

the remnants of the Bucktails and Pennsylvania Reserves, who were armed with the repeating rifles which had been issued to them but a few days before. All was joy in the Confederate camp. The Federals had not been driven from the railroad, but a division had been annihilated and another partly destroyed, and Mahone, marching into the lines at Petersburg, was able to present his commander nearly three thousand(1) prisoners as the result of his day’s work. He slept well that night, and on the morrow determined that he would attack again this position and drive the enemy from the place. On our side, our generals were not disposed to loosen their grip upon the road but to hold it at all hazards, and thus, while the one was planning how to retake, the other was strengthening his hold upon the road. The dull, wet, dreary night of the 19th wore away and the morning of the 20th, came on. The 1st Division was not engaged at all on the 19th. When the troops of the 2d Division changed their formation to resist the flank attack, Colonel Tilton was ordered to send two regiments of his brigade to support the batteries on the Turnpike and railroad, which he did. He remained in this position all the night of the 19th and part of the 20th, when he was relieved and sent back to his old line. The 4th Division, that part of it that remained under the immediate command of General Cutler, was used to support the 2d Division, and it did efficient duty at critical portions of the day. Colonel Hoffman’s Brigade of this division was under the immediate command of General Ayres, as before mentioned.(2)

August 20. The day opened quite pleasant, and the sunlight that struggled through the clouds was cheering to the somewhat lonely feeling troops of the 3d Division that were in line. The Ninth Corps made a complete connection with the

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(1) About 2600.

(2) On the 19th of August two regiments of Kautz’s Division under Colonel Spear covered the left flank of the Fifth Corps. A brigade from General Gregg joined this command in the afternoon.

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right of the Fifth and further danger on the right was prevented. During this day the engineers of the Fifth Corps marked out a new line to be occupied in the open, just in advance of the Dunlock house, and about 300 yards north from the Six Mile House. This was determined upon after General Ayres had strongly urged the formation of a new line. This line ran on the crest of the slope from the ground near the Dunlock and Lennear houses to the woods where the disaster had befallen our troops. The 1st Division remained where it was originally established on the 18th. The 3d Division occupied the ground to the right (east) of the railroad track. The 2d Division still had one brigade upon the east side of the railroad, the other two brigades were on the west side of the same. The 2d Brigade of the 4th Division continued this line to the point where the line was refused to the south, and the 1st Brigade of the same division occupied it entirely. This line in turn was refused to the east. Artillery was put on the line. The works were quite heavily made and were impracticable to an assault from the front. The line was taken up on the right of the Fifth Corps by the left of the Ninth Corps, their intrenchments lapping directly on the Fifth. The artillery was massed in very much the same manner as has been heretofore mentioned. The advanced line was abandoned on the afternoon and evening of the 20th. In order to convince the enemy’s pickets that the old line was still held, slashing was done over the entire corps front on the old line until late at night of the 20th. The day passed very quietly with no engagements with the enemy. However, they were not unobservant of all that was going on. Determined to recapture the line of works, dispositions were made to accomplish the result. The attack could not now be made on the right as that line was securely guarded. Their attention was turned to the left flank, which they supposed was as insecure as the right had been. It seems that General Roger A. Pryor, who had resigned his position in the Confederate Army, eager to help the cause along, was

acting as an independent scout. Riding through the woods on the Federal left, he conceived that an attack made from this point would find Ayres equally as unprepared as Crawford had been, and climbing a tree he observed that Ayres’ line turned to the south for only about 100 yards. He hastened back to Mahone with this information. The latter reported the case to General Lee, and by him was given the command of an expedition designed to loosen our hold upon the road. General Heth was again to lead his men directly down the Halifax Road, and make a front attack, while Mahone with his command was to strike our left. General Heth had with him four brigades and eight pieces of artillery from Pegram’s Battalion. General Mahone had five brigades, respectively, Saunders, Finnegan, Wright, Harris, Hagood, and W. H. F. Lee’s Division of cavalry. Twelve pieces of artillery accompanied this column. Very early in the morning of the 21st General Heth moved his men down the Halifax Road to the Jones house. His artillery went into position at that point. General Mahone led his column down the Halifax Road to the point where the Vaughan Road intersects the Halifax Road, then turning into this road, which runs somewhat southwesterly, he kept on until his men reached a point near the Poplar Spring Church, now occupied by a National Cemetery, and also near the point where the 50th N. Y. Engineers built that unique log church in the following winter. Reaching the church he formed a line of battle. His force was all in line facing east. He started out on his march and at four A. M. on the morning of the 21st his skirmishers boldly advanced upon the pickets of our line. It was intended to deliver an attack soon after this hour, but the clouds which up to this time had threatened rain now gave it forth in abundance, and the lines were not advanced. The rain was succeeded by a very foggy atmosphere, which in turn at 8.30 o’clock gave way to sunshine. The enemy immediately, as soon as the sun came out, pushed up their men and artillery, and before nine A. M. opened

upon our lines a severe fire from the twelve guns on the west and the eight guns on the north. Knowing early in the morning that the pickets of the enemy were active, the men behind their works were expecting another attack, and it was the fierce screaming of the shells from the hostile batteries that caused our men to spring to arms and resist what was now assured, a very strong attack upon our left flank and front. General Heth in the front moved his men very boldly up to the old lines, and much to his chagrin found them unoccupied. Pushing on, his men went to the point where the clearing began, but he did little more than put in an appearance, for as quickly as he was discovered our batteries opened upon him with spherical case. Delayed, stopped, and his men turning about and fleeing in a perfect state of demoralization, the danger from his attack was as quickly over as begun. The artillery did it all. The enemy’s batteries from the west enfiladed a portion of the line of our troops. Taking for a mark the batteries on the road and to the east of the same, their shells made the works erected by the 3d Division quite untenable. Disregarding then the attack of Heth on their front, our men sprang over their works, taking them in reverse, feeling quite sure that there was far greater danger from Mahone’s shells than Heth’s infantry. Then too the attacking party had shown great signs of weakening, and well they might, as their dead lay in heaps, so accurate and deadly was our artillery fire. While Heth was thus easily repulsed, Mahone, true to his desire to drive our troops off, opened a terrific fire from his guns. This fire was very rapid, and the little plain about the Six Mile House was as full of bursting shells as one could easily imagine. After shelling the position he advanced his troops against the left flank, when to his utter astonishment he found a strongly intrenched line, well manned, with artillery ready to meet him. Hastily correcting his formation, he moved Hagood’s Brigade further south and on his right with orders after passing the left flank to turn to

the north up a ravine and thus get in rear of our newly discovered line. Hagood did as he was ordered. The troops all along the line advanced as ordered, but one volley was enough for them. Without any attempt at disputing the ground, all the troops except Hagood’s instantly fell back, leaving the ground strewn with killed and wounded. Hagood pushed on to the attack, reached the ravine, and turned to the north, when a new line greeted his vision. The works of the 1st Division, hitherto unobserved and apparently unknown, became a living reality to him. The artillery from our left, raking the ravine to the northwest, poured spherical case into his line, the battery on the right of our line firing southwest, gave him canister, and Bragg in his front gave him rifle shots at very close range, while the 1st Division poured volley after volley upon this brigade. All was confusion and disorder in this portion of the attacking column, and the men, seeing it was better to keep on than stand still or go back, kept up to the line, but threw away their arms. Those who stayed with their colors hugged the ground as close as men could ever do. General Ayres riding along the lines ordered the men to cease firing, as it was most unmerciful slaughter. The firing ceased, and Captain Dailey, one of the Staff of the 4th Division, went out to receive the surrender of a stand of colors nearest the line. Taking them from the sergeant, he was about leaving when General Hagood demanded the instant return of the same, declaring they were not surrendered. Captain Dailey refused, when General Hagood, drawing his pistol, shot him and he fell. This was the signal for renewed firing from the 4th Division, and the enemy, such as would not surrender, ran into the woods. About six hundred of these were captured, and battle flags were picked up in profusion. The enemy, as they withdrew, fled down the Vaughan Road towards Petersburg, and Captain Hart gave them no mercy, for on the instant that any fleeing troops appeared he opened upon them with canister and hastened their movements. Never was

assault more completely repulsed, nor a column of troops more thoroughly shattered.(1) General Mahone was astounded and greatly chagrined at the result, and, after reaching a place of safety and gathering the remnants of his command together, he reported to General Lee, who was near the Jones house, the result of the morning’s work. Notwithstanding his warm reception he seems to have lost his head, for he assured General Lee if he could have two additional brigades with the troops in hand the Federals should be driven off from the road. So urgent was his request, that this commander immediately telegraphed General Field, who was north of the Appomattox, to send two brigades by rail or otherwise, to the extreme right, and with this reenforcement the attack was to be made. These troops arrived so late that the attack was abandoned, and I am quite certain that it was very fortunate for the Confederates that it was so. The whole affair was over in less than an hour, and the greatest quiet reigned where carnage had held sway. The casualties were very light, the artillery losing more than the infantry. General Cutler was slightly wounded and General Ayres lost a brigade commander, Colonel Dushane, whose head was taken off by a shell. In the afternoon the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division was moved over to the extreme left of the intrenched line of this division, and erected a line facing due south, connecting on its right with the 2d Brigade of this division. General W. H. F. Lee in command of the enemy’s cavalry in the afternoon made a slight demonstration on Griffin’s left. A regiment of infantry sent out to reenforce the pickets became quite seriously engaged. The enemy were repulsed with but little difficulty. A brigade under command of Colonel Tilton of the 1st Division was sent to the left because of this demon-

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(1) During the Confederate attack described in the text, the Confederate cavalry under W. H. F. Lee moved against the extreme left of the Union line, and were easily repulsed by the cavalry of Gregg and Kautz and an infantry regiment of Griffin’s division.

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stration and a desire to reenforce our left and rear. This ended the fighting on the Weldon Railroad at the Six Mile House, although four days after the Second Corps had a battle at Reams’ Station. This line, so gallantly captured and defended, was never again in the Confederate possession, and thus was lost to them a most important line of supply.

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ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 5 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS

Source:

  1. Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 241-266

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