OR XL P1 #10: Report of Major Benjamin F. Fisher, Signal Corps, Chief Signal Officer, AotP June 12-July 30, 1864

   

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in Part 1 (Serial Number 80)

No. 10. Reports of Major Benjamin F. Fisher, Signal Corps, U. S. Army, Chief Signal Officer, Army of the Potomac.1

HDQRS. ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, SIGNAL DEPARTMENT, October [22], 1864.

GENERAL: *

Upon the 12th of June the army commenced moving in the direction of the James River, and this commences the fifth epoch of the campaign.

Upon the 13th of June the advance reached the vicinity of Wilcox’s Landing and signal communication was immediately opened with Fort Powhatan and Wilson’s Wharf. The general commanding was then placed in immediate communication with General Butler’s command and enabled to call for the necessary means to transport the Army of the Potomac to the south bank of the James.

Upon the 14th of June I established a line of stations toward City Point and on the 15th had communication established from Douthat’s Wharf to Point of Rocks, General Butler’s headquarters. During the passage of the troops from Wilcox’s Wharf to Wind-Mill Point communication was kept open between the opposite sides of the river, enabling corps commanders to issue their instructions conveniently and speedily, thus facilitating and expediting the crossing of that portion of the army.

Upon the 15th of June, by direction of the commanding general, Captain T. R. Clark reported for temporary duty to the naval officer in command of the gun-boat Mackinaw, stationed in the river to cover the crossing of the army and the taking up of the pontoon bridge.

Upon June 16 the advance of the army arrived in front of Petersburg, and upon the 17th stations of observation were established at General Hancock’s headquarters near the Prince George road, the headquarters of General Smith near the Friend house, and those of General Warren upon the left near the Avery house. From these stations the position of the enemy and the arrival of additional troops could be seen. As the lines of the army were extended to the westward stations were added in such numbers and positions as to command a view of all that was transpiring along the front.

Upon the 22nd of June we occupied five stations, affording the following advantages: No. 1, at the Walthall house upon the extreme right of our lines, commanding a view of the city of Petersburg, a section of the Weldon railroad near the depot, a broken view of the country

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*For portion of report (here omitted) covering operations from May 4 to June 12, 1864, see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.282.

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extending from Cemetery Hill southwestward to the lead-works, and thence around several miles westward of the city to the lines of the Appomattox; also a view of the left bank of the Appomattox from the hills back of Pocahontas to Fort Clifton, with all the batteries or works between these two points. In addition, the officer upon this station intercepted the daily report of observations made by the enemy’s signal officer from the Chesterfield Heights. No. 2, upon the Jordan house, which commanded a point on the street in Petersburg leading to the bridge crossing the Appomattox River from Petersburg to Pocahontas. It likewise had a sweeping view of the left bank of the river, and the officer upon the station was frequently employed by the artillery officers in the vicinity to note the effect to shots fired at the enemy’s batteries at Archer’s and other points, thus aiding in directing the firing. No. 3 was located upon a hickory tree near the Prince George Court-House road at an elevation of eighty-five feet. This afforded a view of the lines from the Appomattox to the vicinity of the plank road, of Cemetery Hill, the city, the country for several miles west of the city, and a small section of the Richmond pike, about one mile from Pocahontas. No. 4 was established upon the Avery house, giving a close view of the works east of Cemetery Hill, and thence southwestward; also a section of a road northwest of the city running toward Richmond. No. 5, near the Jerusalem plank road (now in Fort Davis), commanding a good view of the enemy’s line of works (first and second) from the east side of Cemetery Hill to west of Weldon railroad; also of the roads leading out of the city in the vicinity of the lead-works, such as the Weldon railroad, the Boydton plank road, and the Squirrel Level road.

To give a detailed statement of all the reports made daily would perhaps extend this report to too great a length, and I shall, therefore, confine myself to two of three particular instances in the latter part of June and during July.

Upon the 23rd of June our lines, having been extended west of the Jerusalem plank road, were drawn out toward the Weldon railroad, and the enemy detached a portion of their army to operate against that flank. This movement was made by about 10,000 infantry, and several batteries of artillery were discovered from the plank road station and reported to the general commanding, thus affording him timely information to take the necessary precaution to thwart any design the enemy might have.

Upon the 27th of June the enemy concentrated in the vicinity of Reams’ Station a force of cavalry and infantry in order to intercept, as events proved, the returning expedition under the command of General Wilson. The movements of these forces from the vicinity of Petersburg, by the way of the Squirrel Level road, were discovered and reported.

Upon July 1 the main portion of the troops that had been operating against General Wilson were reported returning toward Petersburg.

Upon the 27th of July the information was forwarded to the commanding general of the withdrawal of a portion of the enemy’s troops from the vicinity of Petersburg. The knowledge of these movements gave the commanding general positive information of the success of his feint upon the north bank of the James River, and promised success in the assault upon the enemy’s lines upon the morning of the 30th of July.

From dawn until dark of each day a careful watch was kept from the several stations, and each new work, every additional change in the enemy’s line considered of any importance, and all movements of troops

were immediately reported. These references to the few of the many daily reports made will enable an estimate to be formed of the character and value of the services rendered by the corps in addition to its ready means of opening communication between distant and sometimes almost inaccessible places. During the campaign we occupied over seventy stations of observation and established eleven lines of signal communication.

It is duty as well as pleasure to bear full testimony to the energy and zeal displayed by Captain P. A. Taylor, serving with General Hancock; Captain D. E. Castle, acting signal officer, serving with General Warren; Captain J. C. Paine, serving with General Burnside, and Captain C. L. Davis, in command of the reserve detachment. Through the efforts of the latter officer few means were untried by which service might be rendered.

In addition I would mention the names of Lieuts. G. J. Clarke, William H. R. Neel, and J. B. Duff, for their energy, faithfulness, and gallantry.

Among the non-commissioned officers who have shown themselves especially attentive, faithful, and intelligent in performing their duties I would record Sergts. H. W. Fulton and Van Buren Sleeper.

While thus specially pointing to individuals, I must attest the energy and zeal of the officers and men of the corps generally. All requirements usually met with a ready and willing response. If, owing to the character of the country and the natural difficulties to be overcome, we as a corps have not accomplished what we desired, permit me to record that we tried to do our duty.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

B. F. FISHER,

Major and Chief Signal Officer, Army of the Potomac.

Brigadier General S. WILLIAMS,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

HDQRS. ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, SIGNAL DEPARTMENT, October 25, 1864.

SIR: Your communication of the 20th of September, 1864, withdrawing the release granted in October, 1863, relieving this office from the duty of making certain monthly reports called for by a circular issued from the office of the Signal Bureau, dated August 24, 1863, has been received. In compliance with said communication I have the honor to submit the following combined monthly reports of operations for the months of July, August, and September, 1864:

At the opening of the month of July the Army of the Potomac was lying in front of Petersburg, Va., being actively engaged in regular siege operations. At this time the officers and men of my detachment were stationed at such points along our lines as would enable them to observe carefully the movements and operations of the enemy. The more important of these stations were located as follows: No. 1, at the Walthall house, upon the extreme right of our lines, commanding a view of the city of Petersburg, a section of the Weldon railroad near the depot, a broken view of the country extending from Cemetery Hill southwestward to the lead-works, and thence around several miles westward of the city to the line of the Appomattox, also a view of the left bank of the Appomattox from the hills back of Pocahontas to Fort

Clifton, with all the batteries or works between these two points. In addition, the officers upon this station intercepted the daily reports of observations made by the enemy’s signal officers from the Chesterfield Heights. No. 2, upon the Jordan house, which commanded a point on the street in Petersburg leading to the bridge crossing the Appomattox River from Petersburg to Pocahontas. It likewise had a sweeping view of the left bank of river, and the officer upon the station was frequently employed by the artillery officers in that vicinity to note the effects of shots fired at the enemy’s batteries at Archer’s and other points, thus aiding in directing the firing. No. 3 was located upon a hickory tree, at an elevation of eighty-five feet, near the Prince George Court-House road. This afforded a view of the lines from the Appomattox to the vicinity of the plank road, of Cemetery Hill, the city, the country for several miles west of the city, and a small section of the Richmond pike about one mile from Pocahontas. No. 4 was established upon the Avery house, giving a close view of the works east of Cemetery Hill, and thence southward; also a section of a road northwest of the city running toward Richmond. No. 5, near the Jerusalem plank road (now in Fort Davis), commanding a good view of the enemy’s lines of works (first and second) from the east side of Cemetery Hill to the west of the Weldon railroad; also of the roads leading out of the city in the vicinity of the lead-works, such as the Weldon railroad the Boydton plank road, and the Squirrel Level road. These comprise, as before stated, the most important stations in operation at the commencement of the month of July, 1864. Many others were established at different times, but only occupied temporarily as occasion required. These stations were almost exclusively stations of observation, no communication by flags being necessary on account of the facilities afforded to transmit all messages by the military telegraph. The majority of them were also located in such close proximity to the enemy’s lines as to be under the command of their sharpshooters if discovered, rendering it necessary to prevent their existence being made known. In addition to these stations under the charge of the reserve party, and reporting directly through the chief signal officer to the commanding general of the army, two officers were assigned to each corps headquarters, who rendered such immediate signal service as they were able to the serial corps commanders.

It is to be understood in the following report that all movements or changes mentioned or stated to have been discovered were reported to the commanding general. In order to connect the operations and reports made up on July 1 with those preceding, I will refer briefly to the movements discovered upon June 27, upon which date the enemy concentrated in the vicinity of Reams’ Station a force of cavalry and infantry in order to intercept, as events proved, the returning expedition under the command of General Wilson. The movement of these forces from the vicinity of Petersburg, by way of the Squirrel Level road, were seen from one of our stations and reported accordingly.

Upon July 1 the main portion of the troops that had been operating against General Wilson were discovered returning toward Petersburg, which at once put an end to the apprehension arising from the presence of such a large force upon the flank and rear of our army.

Upon July 2 a heavy train of wagons passed into Petersburg, via Boydton plank road. A new camp discovered south of the lead-works.

July 3. Several minor movements of trains and troops west of the Weldon railroad. Indications of a move late in the evening, but nothing positive discovered.

July 4. Six regiments of infantry and several pieces of artillery passed from Petersburg toward Richmond to-day.

July 5 and 6. Enemy throwing up a second line and working with large details upon main line.

July 7. A train of eighty-one wagons passed southward upon road west of Weldon railroad. The enemy working upon new line between the Jerusalem plank road and the load-works.

July 8. A new redoubt reported being constructed in rear of Gregory’s house. A small body of infantry and cavalry, with a battery of five pieces of artillery, passed southward west of the Weldon railroad. Construction trains on Weldon railroad.

July 9 and 10. Working parties were seen at various parts of their line. Trains upon the Weldon railroad, and a battery of artillery moved southward on the Halifax road.

From July 11th to the 28th various minor movements of the enemy’s troops were discovered, and detailed reports of the enemy’s working parties with the changes in their lines made.

July 27, the disappearance of camps and the movements of troops from the vicinity of Petersburg toward Richmond reported. These movements were made in connection with General Grant’s feint upon the north bank of the James and assured its success.

July 30, the Burnside mine was exploded and an assault made upon the enemy’s works. Signal officers occupied all possible points along the lines and reported each charge.*

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

B. F. FISHER,

Major and Chief Signal Officer, Army of the Potomac.

Lieutenant Colonel W. J. L. NICODEMUS,

Commanding Signal Corps, U. S. Army, Washington, D. C.

Source:

  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 273-277

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