Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG.
Assaults on Both Sides of the James River.
THE EXPLOSION OF BURNSIDES’ MINE AND BATTLE OF THE CRATER.
The Story from Both Sides—Attacks Before Richmond—Fighting at Forts Harrison and Gilmer—Colored Troops in Battle.
Copyright, 1880, By American Press Association.
The siege of Petersburg may be said to have fairly begun about July 1, 1864, twenty-five years ago, when the cavalry raid of Gen. Wilson ended. Petersburg lies close to the Appomattox river, on the south bank. Meade’s army was on the east with a line extending from the Appomattox southward about four miles. Butler’s army at Bermuda Hundred occupied a line which was an extension of Meade’s, but was separated from it by a stretch of the river, which at this point has a north and south course for a distance of about five miles. This separated Grant’s force into two wings with straight lines, and the enemy was confronted on the east only. The struggle must be one to close up the northern or southern sides as a step toward hemming the Confederates in.
The Confederate line of works extended all the way from Richmond across the Appomattox, then west and north again in the form of the letter J, Petersburg being in the loop. The key to the position at Petersburg was directly east of the city. This was the crest of Cemetery Hill, a ridge running north and south, a little more than a mile from the suburbs. The closest approach to the ridge was at the point between the Norfolk railroad and the Jerusalem plank road, where these roads cross the ridge. Here Lee planted his best guns and Beauregard remained in control of the defense. The Confederates, to a man, believed that the fate of Petersburg and of their cause depended upon the possession of this strip of high land. From Cemetery Hill the whole field for three miles around the city is commanded, and if the Union guns secured a lodgment there for a few hours they could cannonade the bridges across the Appomattox, and cut Lee’s army in two, and also shell his lines south and west of the town.
When the Union army settled down to the conviction that Lee had again effectually barred the road to Richmond, the future looked gloomy. The lines in front were more formidable than at the Wilderness or Cold Harbor. After surveying the ground and the works in front of the Ninth corps, which was across the Norfolk road and the plank road, some of the men began to speculate about mining and blowing up some Confederate works on the hill. There was one little Confederate fort or battery, known as Elliott’s Salient, between the road and railroad, which was but little more than 100 yards from Burnside’s advance lines. Opposite to this salient was stationed the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania, commanded by Lieut. Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer, and composed of miners and mine laborers. Some of these men, out of pure bluster, proposed a scheme of mining, but it finally became a serious thought with some and was placed before the officers, with an offer on the part of the common soldiers to do the work of “driving a gangway.”
This was a serious undertaking, for they would have the enemy’s sentinels overhead as soon as they approached the other lines, and the ground was so bare upon the surface that it would not be safe to open ventilating shafts. When the scheme was laid before the regular engineers of the army the question of ventilation condemned it at once. But Col. Pleasants had faith in the instincts of his men, and they were confident that the excavation could be made. The work began June 25 , under the control of Gens. Burnside and Potter, the latter commanding the division in which the Forty-eighth served. Very little material was provided. The men took the common intrenching tools used on the line, and carried the earth away in cracker boxes. The first difficulty encountered was the heat and impure air. The men worked with nothing on but cotton underclothing, and they had to be relieved every two hours, and their chief sustenance was whisky, which they used in their coffee and even to soak their crackers.
As the mine progressed experiments were made for ventilating and finally the following simple and novel plan was adopted: The mouth of the mine was in a deep hollow out of sight of the enemy. Here a board shaft twenty-two feet high was constructed, with a fire burning continually at the bottom. From this upright shaft a wooden tube with an area of sixty inches was carried into the tunnel, and the heat rising in the upright shaft created a draft that relieved the mine of foul air. After a time fresh air was let in through the same tube, with a door constructed to act as a valve and keep the pure air in.
After the problem of ventilation was settled, the miners reached quicksand. One of the believers in the mine, Sergt. Henry Reese, of Company F, a mining foreman by occupation, met this obstacle by laying a floor and lining the whole vein of sand, carving the tunnel so as to avoid the greater portion of it. One day Gen. Meade went into the shaft with a foreign officer, who wished to see the curious “Yankee” operation. When they came to the place that was roofed and sided to keep out the sand, the foreigner thought he could prove that the caution used was unnecessary. He stepped off from the flooring and sank to his hips, and was finally pulled out without his boots and also shorn of some of his conceit.
Finally, after many discouragements, when every man in the regiment had taken his task in the mine and all of them were worn out, the tunnel was reported complete. Then the chambers were charged.
THE MINE COMPLETED.
The material excavated was 18,000 cubic feet. This had to be concealed in deep hollows and behind bushes and other screens. The enemy were suspicious of mines, for Gen. Grant had used them at Vicksburg, and they probed the ground between the lines and also started counter mines. Two of the counter mines were sunk at Elliott’s Salient, but both were so placed that Pleasant’s tunnel ran between them.
Gen. Beauregard, who was one of the most skillful engineers in the Confederate army, had a fear that an attempt would be made on this position. On each side of Elliott’s salient there was a ravine grown up with bushes, and in each there was a battery of four guns sweeping the lines between the fort and Burnside’s breastworks. There were guns in position along the crest of the ridge commanding the salient, and altogether the enemy was alert, although they did not know what form the attempt would take. The mine was ready July 23, and was charged with 8,000 pounds of powder, placed in eight chambers of a thousand pounds each. The (illegible) inside the Union lines and extending into the Confederate. The chambers were located directly under the Confederate work, which was occupied by infantry and four cannon.
The preparations for the explosion were in the main kept secret in the Union lines. The plan was to form a column of assult near the scene, explode the mine and open a gap in the enemy’s defensive armor, and taking advantage of the confusion of the movement, enter and pass the breach and seize the crest of Cemetery Hill behind the exploded fort. The assault was to be made by Burnside’s Ninth corps, consisting of three divisions of white troops commanded by Gens. James H. Ledlie, R. B. Potter and O. B. Willcox, and one division of colored troops under Gen. Edward Ferrero.
The colored troops were drilled, specially to lead the assault, but the white troops were ignorant of what was expected of them, although camp rumor spread the news that a mine was to be exploded and that the corps would charge the lines in front. It was finally decided at Gen. Meade’s headquarters that the colored division should not lead the assault, and Gen. Burnside left it to a choice by lot between Gens. Ledlie, Willcox and Potter as to which division should dash into the crater at the moment of the explosion and seize the Confederate works. The choice fell upon Ledlie’s division. The officers commanding regiments of this division were informed of the enterprise, which was appointed to take place before daylight July 30.
Ledlie’s division was moved from its position on the lines near the mine to the breastworks immediately in front, and the three brigades of Col. E. G. Marshall and Gens. W. F. Bartlett and S. G. Griffin were formed in the order named to open the battle. The divisions of Potter and Willcox were formed on the right and left of Ledlie’s to move out against the Confederates on each side of the breach as soon as the advance division had entered the breach. In addition the Eighteenth corps was formed on the right of the Ninth, ready to follow up the attack, and Gen. Hancock’s Second corps was brought up to support the movement. Nearly one-half of the Army of the Potomac was in position before the mine to take advantage of any success gained by the first blow.
Some warning of the operations was conveyed to the enemy, although its true character could not have been guessed, since the Union troops, except the few that had been initiated, were ignorant of the exact purpose of all this preparation. The movements of troops were made in the night, and every precaution was taken to insure silence. But the lines were so close and the senses of the combatants so keen that they were aware that unusual preparations were on foot, and surprise was in a measure forestalled. A few days previous to this the cavalry of the army and Hancock’s corps had been sent from the front of Petersburg to Deep Bottom, on the north side of the James, to attempt to cut through Lee’s lines connecting Richmond and Petersburg.
This attempt failed, and Hancock, with part of the Eighteenth corps, moved back to Petersburg, and the marching of this body of men was in itself sufficient to make the Confederates wary. Their line here at the mine was held by Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s division of four brigades, Elliott’s brigade of four South Carolina regiments occupying the fort and the breastworks adjoining. The Eighteenth and Twenty-second South Carolina regiments were partly in the fort, and also four guns of Pegram’s battery. Gen. Mahone’s division was on the right of Johnson’s, and lying across the ridge. The remaining troops of Lee’s army were some distance away, portions under Longstreet and Hill having gone to meet Hancock’s movement at Deep Bottom.
ON TO THE CRATER.
The troops in the assaulting column were awake before daylight, and were expecting an order to go forward. Gens. Grant, Meade and Burnside were at headquarters in rear of the works, directing movements by telegraph. Burnside was nearest the scene. When daylight came and there was no explosion it was believed at army headquarters that the mine had failed. But it had been lighted according to the plan, Col. Pleasants himself having touched the fuse. Time dragged, and dispatches came to Burnside from Gen. Grant, first asking if the mine had failed and then ordering an assault, regardless of the mine, over the same ground.
But the spark had been put to the powder and it might do its work at any moment, carrying up the assaulting column as well as the unfortunate Confederates to the work, if the charge should take place before the explosion came. Word was sent to the miners at the mouth of the shaft, asking if the mine had failed. As there is a hero for every emergency there was one for this, Sergt. Reese volunteered to go into the tunnel and follow up the fuse and put it in order. Going a long distance in he found where the fire seemed to have died out, and cutting off the sound end he made a splice light enough to let the fire run over it, relit it, and went back to the opening. The mine exploded at twenty minutes of 5, over an hour late.
The men in the Union ranks were startled by the rumbling and upheaval of the ground around them. Men who were standing up were knocked over and those lying down were sent upward at a bound. All eyes were turned toward the front, and the mass of earth and matter carried up by the tremendous force was suspended for a second in the air. The cry rang out to go forward. That was the first announcement made to the men on whom so much depended as to what was expected. Immediately in front of Marshall’s leading brigade there was a breastwork as high as a man’s head and no provision had been made to scale this obstacle. The Union cannon all along the line, powerful batteries placed on purpose to sweep the lines adjoining the crater, opened a deafening cannonade and orders could scarcely be heard.
When the earth fell back in the crater it sent up a column of dust, and that, with the smoke from the exploded powder and from the Union guns, obscured the ground, so that the men could not see their front or move with any cohesion. Less than two hundred of Marshall’s advance ranks were on the Union breastworks when he ordered them forward. This was within ten minutes from the moment of explosion, and before this body crossed the narrow space—which was up a slope—the enemy opened with cannon and muskets. One man of company C, Fourteenth New York heavy artillery, was shot down by a solid shot before he reached the crater. This shot came from a battery that had been trained to sweep this space of ground. As cannon are kept loaded for such emergencies doubtless some man on the watch opened fire at once.
About 400 Confederates were buried by the explosion. These were principally from the Eighteenth [South Carolina] and Twenty-second South Carolina regiments and Pegram’s battery. Three guns of Pegram’s battery were destroyed and one was overturned. Some of Marshall’s men pulled this dismounted gun out of the rubbish, and hunting up the enemy’s magazine, put it into action against a Confederate battery that was raking the crater. The pit made by the explosion was 150 feet long, 80 wide (illegible) deep in the deepest[?] part. The earth had been thrown (illegible). Breastworks and abattis were covered up, so that the assailants could run over them. Smoke was issuing from the pit and live men were found half buried and struggling to get free.
In twenty minutes after the explosion several hundred men of Ledlie’s division were in and around the crater and were firing at the enemy, who were aroused and under arms on all sides. Some of the Confederates were dazed by the surprise and surrendered without a struggle, but the majority rallied behind another line of breastworks and fired into the breach. It was an hour of general confusion, and the men who had dashed into the opening were at loss what to do. The enemy was in force, right, left and front, and even on the right and left rear, because the assailants had passed[?] the parallel of the Confederate front. These flanks were to have been cleared by the men of Potter’s and Willcox’s divisions, leaving Ledlie’s men free to move on toward Cemetery Hill, the crest of which was the point to be gained.
But the men in these supporting divisions had the same obstacle in the way of rapid movement that had delayed Ledlie’s, the high breastworks which had to be mounted a man at a time, one man pulling another up. The result was that there was no formation of solid lines such as are needed for a successful assault. The men straggled along under orders, and they were met by the enemy’s fire. Although they pushed up to the Confederate outer works and took them, they found still stronger works in front of them, and had to fire a deadly fire of bullets, shells and cannister.
The men of Ledlie’s division made several brave sallies upon the breastworks with which they were encompassed and where the Confederates were lodged. The enemy’s line was double, and only the front parapet had been destroyed. Between the two lines there were log and earth huts which served as cover for sharpshooters, and there were also breastworks running crosswise between the two lines. Marshall, Bartlett and Griffin succeeded in getting the field cleared all around the crater, and as the enemy was soon to be aroused on all sides, the best thing under the circumstances was to hold the breach until the supporting division reached there.
The orders were that if the assault failed to carry the crest the troops should withdraw. But it could not be considered a failure until the whole Ninth corps had been repulsed. The divisions of Potter and Willcox carried some of the works above and below the breach, but the time occupied in getting them over the Union breastworks and across the space between them and the Confederate was more than half an hour, and then their columns were broken up into little parties, and there was at no point a body of men strong enough to capture one battery.
FIGHTING IN THE BREACH.
Meanwhile the Confederates had comprehended the extent of the disaster, and all the reserves within call were drawn to the crest, or near it. Batteries were placed in selected positions and a body of sharpshooters made a bold dash in a reconnaissance up to the crater’s edge. Now there occurred a hand to hand struggle between Ledlie’s men and the Confederates around them for the ground on the farther side of the pit. At this point the piled up earth and the second breastwork formed a good cover for men, and whichever side could possess that would control the breach. Marshall and Griffin held this ground unto the end.
Some time after 6 o’clock Gen. Meade ordered a division of the Eighteenth corps, on the right of the Ninth, to charge the Confederate line there and attempt to widen the breach. At the same time Burnside was ordered to send forward his colored division. This division was not on the ground, but was back in the sheltered ways behind the Union breastworks and the outlets to the front were, to all intents and purposes, clogged, and the men had to move out in pairs. These troops had never been under fire, though many of their officers (white) were old soldiers. It was 8 o’clock, or more than two hours after the explosion, before this charge took place. The men going in in confusion had no force for assault. Some of them ran into the pit for cover, others crouched behind the breastworks and log huts, and for the moment it looked as though the division that had been specially prepared for the attack was to meet with speedy ruin.
However, the officers of the division heroically seized the colors and leaping over all obstacles went forward until stricken down. Hundreds of the blacks, stimulated by this, rallied and charged, carrying some of the Confederate reserve trenches and taking some prisoners and a flag. But very soon a counter charge drove them back. Turner’s division of Ord’s Eighteenth corps, ordered in by Burnside about 6 o’clock, did not get to the front until after the colored troops had been repulsed. The same obstacle that delayed all other divisions kept this column back, that is the narrow lanes, or sheltered ways leading to the front and through which men were obliged to pass singly. Two brigades of this division charged on the right of the colored division, which was all on the right of the crater and nearest to Cemetery Crest.
The situation on the Confederate side was at no time so gloomy as it was suppposed to be by the Union commander. Every effort had been made to strengthen the ridge along the Jerusalem road, because it was the natural point of attack. The confusion was less than might be supposed over such a sudden disaster, but the Union men, who were all under arms when the explosion took place, were themselves so surprised that they could not realize whether a Union or a Confederate fort had been demolished. On the Confederate side, all excepting the few hundred near the scene, who were shaken up, rushed forward to the elevated places to see what was the matter.
Gen. Lee heard of the affair within half an hour, and ordered two brigades of Mahone’s division—on the right of Bushrod Johnson’s, at the breach—to come up and support Johnson. These men came up behind Cemetery crest, sheltered from the Union guns, and then passed the crest by filing along a bushy ravine until they came within a few yards of the scene of the fighting. Johnson had meanwhile formed his whole division around the crater, and the concealed batteries in all directions, trained upon this ground, made a wall of defense which could be broken by overwhelming numbers only. Lee and Beauregard were soon on the ground directing the movements, and by the time the several Union divisions could get into line to advance the Confederates were fully ready to receive them.
Mahone’s division, supported by portions of Johnson’s, met the colored troops when they made the farthest advance, and broke the force of their attack, sending them back in confusion upon the white troops in the captured intrenchments. This carried back part of Gen. Potter’s division, of the Ninth corps, and Turner’s, of the Eighteenth, and the Union advance was frustrated. A Confederate of Mahone’s division, who participated in this counter charge, Thomas H. Cross, of the Sixteenth Virginia, gives this description:
When we first set out on our expedition [to recapture the lines] we did not know that we should be called upon to “lock horns” with negro troops, and that they had leaped our works with the exultant cry of “No quarter!” This information gained, a stranger would perhaps have noticed a quickening of the step; each eye burned with a brighter glow, and each gun received more than a casual examination to see that it was properly loaded and ready for action. We had never met negro troops. We did not know whether we should be met by a sort of savage ferocity or whether we should meet that cool, imperturbable bravery which characterizes men fighting for freedom. But we did know that behind us lay the town of Petersburg, with its inhabitants looking to us for protection; we know that this was the key to Richmond. We knew that an enemy who had proclaimed “No quarter” was before us, and we determined to spare neither ourselves nor the enemy until the works were retaken and the city was saved.
We deployed in a little valley and then came the final preparations for the assault. The tops of fifteen flagstaffs could be seen over the hill, and fifteen hostile banners flung defiance in our faces. The order was passed, in that subdued tone which denotes stern purposes, to “fix bayonets,” and an extra turn was taken in the little screw which holds the bayonet shank on the gun.
Some said that Gens. Lee and Beauregard would witness the charge, and thus another incentive was given to us to do our work well and faithfully. Orders were given to the commanders of regiments to withhold the fire until the works were rescued, and we were (illegible. . . . .) heavy fire of five lines of infantry, which had been gathered in our front. All was now ready.
Slowly and deliberately we came to the top of the hill, and here, as we became more exposed, our step was quickened and the lines were gained but not retaken. Guns were emptied into the forces of the foemen, and then the bayonets were relied upon, as it was almost impossible to reload. This blood of whites and blacks, of friend and foe, combined to form rivulets which should bear down to future generations the testimony that men can forget mercy and that human wrath is stronger than human love. Soon the field and trench were covered with the dead and the wounded. The first line which we encountered was a traverse running parallel with the main line of breastworks, the interval between the two being honeycombed by sleeping apartments so constructed (shot proof) as to insure the greatest possible security to the occupants.
This traverse was about seventy-five feet in rear of the main line. It was about ten feet from the traverse ditch to the top of the traverse parapet, and this parapet commanded the line of works nearest to the enemy. All this space was occupied by the enemy. When they had realized that their attack was a failure they sought refuge in these little bomb proofs and in the crater. But the Confederates followed close at their heels, and here the hand to hand fight continued until the work of recapture was fully and irrevocably done. All of this happened in much less time than it takes me to tell it; some say it was twenty minutes, but certain it is that before the sun had reached meridian some of those who had escaped the dangers of assault and the wounds of conflict had yielded to the heat, which was well nigh intolerable. Then we began to realize the fact that several thousand dead and festering bodies would force an abandonment of the lines. But still more must be added to the list before those already dead could be buried.
The crater had by this time become a place of retreat for the crouching foe and while a part of the line was assigned to the task of keeping up a fire at the enemy in our front, in their own lines, the remainder of our men went to prevent the escape of the enemy in the crater. To do this more effectually we took advantage of the many guns lying loose all about us and loading all of them when the enemy would make a rush for their lines we would give them such a volley as would force them back within the pit.
The Union troops were now virtually imprisoned in the crater and the adjoining works. All of this ground was under fire at all times and on a day when no battle was going on shells and bullets swept over the fields. At this time the fury of the usual siege fire was increased a hundredfold. Word was sent from headquarters for the men that had gone forward to withdraw, but the way back to the old lines was thickly covered with bodies, and it was an even chance of life or death to attempt to retreat.
About 1,000 surrendered, among them Col. Marshall and Gen. Bartlett. Bartlett had a cork leg, which was shattered by a bullet, thus disabling him. The Union killed, wounded and missing was about 4,000; the Confederate about 1,300. There was a court of inquiry appointed by President Lincoln to examine and report on the causes of this disaster. Gens. Ledlie and Ferrero were censured by the court for not going with their divisions when they charged. Gen. Burnside was soon afterward relieved from command of the Ninth corps, and Gen. John G. Parke succeeded him.
The siege operations on the south side of James river were for many weeks confined to the work of building extensive, heavy fortifications all along the line from the Jerusalem road to the Appomattox, and a chain of forts around City Point, to make the defense strong. Gen. Sheridan, with two divisions of cavalry, had been sent to Maryland to operate in defense of the capital and the north against Early, and the Sixth corps, under Gen. Wright, was on the same duty. It soon transpired that the Confederate commander had sent some troops under Longstreet to assist Early in the Shenandoah valley. Gen. Grant now detached Hancock, with his Second corps, and Gregg’s division of cavalry to make a movement along the north bank of the James, near Richmond.
THE BATTLES AROUND RICHMOND.
When it was reported to Gen. Grant that the Confederates were in force at Deep Bottom, Hancock was ordered to suspend active operations, and on Aug. 20  the whole command returned to Petersburg. Following this withdrawal of Hancock to the south bank of the James the Confederates stripped the lines before Richmond until there were but four brigades remaining under Gen. Fields [sic, Field], of Longstreet’s corps.
Some engagements took place on the Weldon railroad, south of St. Petersburg, during the latter part of August, and while the attention of the Confederates was drawn to that point another attempt was made to capture Richmond by direct attack. On the 28th of September  Gen. E. O. C. Ord, commanding the Eighteenth corps, and Gen. Birney with the Tenth, moved from the old position near Bermuda Hundred and advanced in two columns along the roads parallel to the river. The column nearest the river was Ord’s and numbered 4,000 men, in two divisions, under Gens. George J. Stannard and Heckman. The outer column was Birney’s and numbered about 10,000 men, under Gens. Adelbert Ames, A. H. Terry and Paine, the division of the latter being composed of colored troops. Gen. William Birney had a brigade of colored troops in the column. The advance was made on the 29th [of September 1864].
The strongest works to be encountered were Forts Harrison and Gilmer, guarding two main roads, the first a mile and a quarter from the James, at Chapin’s Bluff, and the other three-fourths of a mile farther north. The columns moved rapidly, and having operated thus far secretly, the enterprise promised well. Stannard’s division advanced on Fort Harrison, and, Burnham’s brigade loading, ran up the hill in face of a hot fire from cannon and muskets, and took the work with fourteen guns and many prisoners, including the commander. Gen. (Hiram) Burnham was killed. Col. Stevens, who succeeded to Burnham’s command, was severely wounded. The division lost 594 [?] killed and wounded.
Gen. Ord now turned his column to the left and swept down the Confederate intrenchments toward Chapin’s Bluff. He reached the river, but found the position commanded by Confederate gunboats and a battery across the river. Ord was wounded and Heckman took command of the corps. Gen. Heckman now moved to the right from Fort Harrison and attacked Fort Gilmer, but was repulsed with heavy loss.
Gen. Birney was now moving up farther inland to come abreast of Ord’s command, and his advance took him directly to Fort Gilmer. The cavalry of Kautz was advancing still further inland abreast of Birney, with Terry’s infantry division in support. Gen. Birney now sent forward Ames’ whole division with Gen. William Birney’s colored brigade, to attempt Fort Gilmer. At this time the whole Confederate force was in and around this work. Ames’ men pushed their way through three ravines, obstructed with fallen trees, but as soon as they passed the third and climbed the slope in view of the garrison, they were met with a storm of shots that tore the ranks apart and nearly destroyed the column. Birney’s colored brigade advanced on the right of Ames, moving over level ground.
Their route took them in front of the enemy’s infantry, concealed behind breastworks outside the fort. The fire from this source failed to break the column and they ran to the work and jumped into the ditch, climbing on one another’s shoulders to scale the parapet. Here they were cut down almost to a man, and the attempt was a failure. Fort Gilmer was the key to the whole region, as it commanded the lower intrenchments in all directions, even as far as Chapin’s Bluff, while Fort Harrison did not.
The news of this movement against Richmond drew to the scene Gens. Lee and Ewell, and during the night of the 29th the brigades of Confederates were massed around Fort Gilmer to attempt a recapture of Fort Harrison. R. H. Anderson, who led up five brigades, and following a first and a second repulse, the line was reformed and put in again. Gen. Cecil Clay, who then commanded the Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania, gives the following account of the bloody repulse of these desperate assaults:
The enemy advanced in column and had to charge over a slightly descending ground to reach our fort. The division came on in fine order—officers with their swords drawn, arms glittering and battle flags flying. As soon as it came within range our men began firing, and packed as they were in pits, with the men in the rear loading their pieces and handing them to their comrades in front, kept up a tremendous fire, before which nothing could stand, let alone advance. When the fire opened the men were all shooting low—“(illegible) weakness”—and a long line of puffs of dust plainly to be seen, thrown up some distance on the hither side of the advancing column, marked the impact of the balls. Presently the head of the menacing [?] mass reached the line of them and then—
It seems cruel now, thinking of it in (illegible) that men should have exalted in the slaughter of their fellows, but the necessities of the war as carried on—an offensive warfare on our part—had almost invariably made us the attacking party. Now we were on the defensive and had a chance to (illegible), and we did it effectually. Away went organization, down went men, officers and battle flags; no formation could stand that withering fire. Officers sprang to the front, flags waved and the crowd, for such it soon became, struggled to get up to our works; but there was no standing the racket and the whole mass fell back in confusion.
A second charge met the same fate, but, animated by the presence of Gen. Lee, the division made still another attempt, but only to break to the rear again, thoroughly used up. Several hundred prisoners were taken and a number of battle flags, while the ground was covered with killed and wounded. We had made a great slaughter, and Fort Harrison was still ours, not to be (illegible) endangered. The loss on our side was small, and chiefly attributable to the fire of the Confederate gunboats in the river. Gen. Stannard, our division commander, lost an arm, and there were, perhaps a hundred other casualties.
This ended all movements in force against Richmond. The lines occupied by the Union troops were intrenched and held by the Tenth corps troops until the close of the siege.
ATTACK ON THE WELDON RAILROAD.
While Gen. Hancock was at work at Deep Bottom, north of James river, Aug. 14 to 18, Gen. Warren withdrew the Fifth corps from his lines around the Jerusalem plank road, at Petersburg, and moved out to Globe Tavern, on the Weldon railroad, four miles south of the southern skirts of the town. Willcox’s division of the Ninth corps was placed in support of Warren. Warren moved on the 18th, with instructions to destroy as much of the railroad as he could and seize such ground as he could hold. He seized Globe Tavern Station and began destroying the road, his three divisions being strung along the road.
The Confederate force here was Dearing’s cavalry, but on the appearance of Warren, Gen. Beauregard, who commanded the Confederate right flank, sent Gen. Heth, with Davis’ and Walker’s brigades, to the scene. Moving on a road west of the railroad, Heth passed beyond Warren and fell upon Ayres’ division, driving it back. Ayres rallied and drove Heth from the field. During the night Gen. Lee sent W. H. F. Lee’s cavalry and Mahone’s infantry back from Deep Bottom. On the Union side, the whole Ninth corps, Willcox’s, Potter’s and Gen. Julius White’s divisions (the colored division having been detached), was sent down to Warren’s support.
The Confederate general, A. P. Hill, had command, and on the 19th a heavy force was brought against Warren. Warren’s line was broken, but not destroyed. Warren withdrew his lines, to the rear, still covering the railroad, and intrenched. On the 21st, after receiving heavy re-enforcements, Hill again attacked Warren, opening on his lines with thirty cannon, but the assaults were all repulsed, and the Union line was permanently established on the railroad at Globe Tavern. The Ninth corps took up a position between this point and the Jerusalem road. Warren’s loss in killed, wounded and missing was about 3,000.
Although the railroad was cut at Globe Tavern, there was a good wagon road from Reams’ Station, five miles down the railroad, running into Petersburg, and the Confederate supplies were hauled in from the trains by wagon over this space. On Aug. 22, Hancock was sent with the Second corps to cut the road at Reams’. Within three days he destroyed the track to within five miles of Rowanty creek, eighteen miles from Petersburg, and was continuing the work guarded by two reserve divisions at Reams’ Station. On the 25th [of August 1864] the Confederates advanced to the attack with infantry and cavalry, striking between the reserves at Reams’ and Hancock’s working parties down the road.
The intrenchments at Reams’ were very slight and were occupied by the divisions of Miles and Gibbon, facing in three directions. The force in front of Hancock appeared to be 8,000 or 10,000 strong, and the division of Gen. Willcox of the Ninth corps was ordered from Globe Tavern to his support. Willcox was directed to move by a back road from Globe Tavern to Reams’ instead of along the railroad track, which was supposed at army headquarters to be held by the Confederates. Meanwhile Gen. Hill prepared to overwhlem Hancock and began his attack at half past 5 in the afternoon.
The battle opened with a fierce artillery fire, followed by an assault of six Confederate brigades. An advance battery (McKnight’s) was captured at the first charge. The assault came on three faces at once, so that the shots swept over the whole field. Hancock rallied his men by handfuls and soon retook McKnight’s guns. Now Hampton’s cavalry made a sweeping charge around to the rear, but he was met by Gregg’s cavalry handsomely.
This was Hancock’s last battle1, and it was here that he bore himself like a demi-god. The field was small, the defenders few, and his form was visible to all and his voice rang over the whole field. But he was overwhelmed. Wherever the fire was hottest he rushed in to cheer the men, and at one supreme moment, when officers and me with blanched faces were crying out, “All is lost!” his tones were heard above the roar of battle shouting, “All is not lost! God Almighty lives yet!”
There was one way out, a narrow road running across from the railroad to the Jerusalem plank road. Some troops were rallied, and Capt. Christian, Woerner’s Third New Jersey battery was placed in line to hold this route of retreat. Willcox was momentarily expected to come up in support, but his route was more than twelve miles around, and he did not come until dark.
Meanwhile, under cover of Woerner’s guns, firing in three directions at once, Hancock drew off his men, he, the saddest among them, lamenting that fate had not decreed that he should have fallen on that field of disaster. Here again the heavy losses during the campaign of the old officers and men of the gallant Second corps told in the unhappy result. Hancock was now ordered to the north to organize a veteran corps, and his services with the Army of the Potomac ended at Reams’ Station.2
GEO. L. KILMER.3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: It was not. Hancock was present at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road in October 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: See above. Hancock was in command during the Sixth Offensive in late October 1864. ↩
- “The Siege of Petersburg.” Evening Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA). July 31, 1889, p. 3 col. 1-5 ↩
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