Number 60. Petersburg Campaign Report of Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce, U. S. Army, commanding First Brigade, of operations June 22

   

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in Part 1 (Serial Number 80)

No. 60. Report of Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce, U. S. Army, commanding First Brigade, of operations June 22.1

IN THE FIELD, June 23, 1864.

MAJOR: I have the honor to make the following report, for the information of the major-general commanding, of the part taken in the action yesterday afternoon by the First Brigade, for the purpose of justifying my conduct on that occasion and sustaining the reputation of the brigade:

The first intimation I had of the assault of the enemy was firing far to the left. Before this, however, a battery of the enemy was firing from the right of my line at McKnight’s battery. I proceeded to the latter to see if the was not ready to reply to it, as I had given orders to both batteries not to reply to the enemy’s until they had their works strengthened. I also did not wish to invite an attack of the enemy, as my line east very weak, owing to the length of it and the impossibility to build strong works the night previous. As I arrived at the battery McKnight had opened. Having no aide with me, I at once proceeded to Clark’s battery and gave him orders to open at once on the enemy’s battery, thinking it would draw part of the fire and relieve McKnight. But a few round had been fired by Clark, when I heard the musketry on the left, and in a very short time the road leading to McKnight’s battery was filled with troops from the Third Division in a disorganized state, coming to the rear. I ordered them to organize behind the works of the Fourth Brigade. Following the Third Division were all of the Second Brigade of this division. I inquired what they were falling back for. They said they were flanked, and the enemy were in their rear. I tried to stop them in the woods, which was impossible. As they came into the plank road Captain Embler, who had arrived, formed most of them in rear of the Fourth Brigade. Next came too the officers of McKnight’s battery, saying their guns were captured. Captain McKnight

told me he staid by the guns until the enemy came over the works and ordered him to surrender. The Second Brigade had all left their works, and the enemy came over his left traverse. The Second Brigade men told myself and staff that they were ordered to fall back. At this time I ordered Captain Clark to order up his horses, which had been sent to the rear by my order, on the advice of Colonel Tidball, chief of artillery for the Second Corps. As soon as the horses arrived I ordered his left section a little to the rear across the plank road, and to go into battery facing McKnight’s battery, at the same time to keep up a sharp fire from the right section, which he did. Following the officers and men of McKnight’s battery, were portions of the First Minnesota and Nineteenth Maine Volunteers, of my brigade, which were in line on the right of the battery. I halted them in the woods and formed them across the road and ordered them to throw skirmishers to the front. At this time Major Hooper, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, reported to me that the enemy came up in his rear and captured most of his regiment. He was on the right of his regiment at the time and escaped through the woods. Major-General Gibbon arriving at this time ordered me to throw forward a strong skirmish line, which I did by throwing out the Fist Minnesota. He then gave me two small regiments from the Fourth Brigade, which I placed on the left of the Nineteenth Maine, with orders to advance and recapture McKnight’s battery. I pressed the line forward and was to within 100 yards of the battery, the skirmishers at this time heavily engaged with the enemy, who were firing from our works. One of the skirmishers reported to me at this time that the enemy had drawn off our guns and was in force behind our works. Captain Embler reported to me that more troops were coming to my support and to place them as I wished. I immediately formed them in a second line and instructed all the officers that I wished to charge and to retake our works, and that when I gave the command forward every officer must press his men forward. I gave command and the lines went forward with a will until within fifty yards of the works, when they received a volley from the enemy. The first line broke, rushed through the second, carrying part of it with it, and it was by the greatest exertions of myself and staff that we stopped them. I succeeded in reforming the line, when Colonel Blaisdell, commanding the Fourth Brigade, reported to me with the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers and Colonel McIvor’s regiment. I ordered him to form them of the right and left of the second line, and was giving him instructions in regard to the charge I was to make, when Captain Gale gave me orders from Major-General Gibbon to charge the works at once. As my first charge had broken from the right and left I ordered Lieutenant White, of my staff, to go to the right at once with a few men and see how near my right was to the Twentieth Massachusetts, which was reported as holding their position in their works. My object was to connect with the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers, get a flank fire on the enemy, and fill the works in succession from the right, which I think could have been accompanied Lieutenant White on the reconnaissance. It was while waiting for this report, which I expected every moment, and just as I had my column of assault formed, that Captain Embler arrived and gave me the order from General Gibbon placing me under arrest.

I would report that my line was formed in the following order from left to right, the left connecting with McKnight’s battery and the right

with the Fifth Corps at the plank road: First Minnesota, Nineteenth Maine, Nineteenth Massachusetts, Forty-second New York, Eighty-second New York, Fifteenth Massachusetts, Fifty-ninth New York, Twentieth Massachusetts, Thirty-sixth Wisconsin, and Seventh Michigan. My line was just in front of a thick wood, and from the left of the Nineteenth Massachusetts our line could not be seen. I can account for the loss of the number of men only by the sudden appearance of the enemy; by the rapid falling back of the Second Brigade with so little firing.

The regiments captured were the Nineteenth Massachusetts, Forty-second New York, Eighty-second New York, Fifteenth Massachusetts, and Fifty-ninth New York. Officers and men who escaped informed me that the first they knew of the close proximity of the enemy [he] was in their rear in force, ordering them to surrender, which they did, colors and all.

I would also state that one hour previous to the attack, without any notice that one was expected, I caused the following order to be issued, viz:

CIRCULAR:] HDQRS. FIRST BRIGADE, SECOND DIVISION, SECOND CORPS,

June 22, 1864.

Commandants of regiments will hold their commands well in hand, prepared to resist any assault from the enemy.

By command of Brigadier-General Pierce, commanding brigade:

O. A. WILLIAMS,

Captain and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.

The orderly who carried the order was on his return from the left, where, he says, he saw three lines of the enemy charge in front of McKnight’s battery.

I received great assistance from my staff officers, who were active in stopping and organizing the broken regiments.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

B. R. PIERCE,

Brigadier-General of Volunteers.

Major JOHN M. NORVELL,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Second Division, Second Corps.

[Indorsement.]
HEADQUARTERS SECOND DIVISION, June 24, 1864.

Respectfully forwarded.

The presence of one or two good regimental officers would probably have stopped this discreditable affair long before the enemy reached the battery. The Second Brigade appears to have given way without an attempt at resistance, and, it is said, by direction of the brigade commander, Major O’Brien, who has been placed in arrest; troops were at once placed at the disposal of General Pierce to retake the battery, but he was so dilatory and allowed so long a time to elapse before moving that the enemy was enabled to organize a force to resist him, and when Colonel Blaisdell, who succeeded him in command, moved forward he was unable to accomplish the object.

JOHN GIBBON,
Major-General of Volunteers, Commanding Division.

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 369-371

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