Number 195. Reports of Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox, U. S. Army, commanding Third Division

   

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in Part 1 (Serial Number 80)

No. 195. Reports of Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox, U. S. Army, commanding Third Division.1

HEADQUARTERS THIRD DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
Before Petersburg, Va., September 13, 1864.

CAPTAIN: *

June 17, before Petersburg. The division made an isolated attack in the morning on the enemy, who was behind his rifle-pits. The point of attack was such that in marching toward it my lines were enfiladed by the enemy’s canister at very short range. Our batteries did not co-operate effectually, in fact not at all, at the critical moment. The supporting brigade of the First Division had just lost its commander, Colonel Marshall, who was wounded, and his successor could not be found, and the assault was not successful; but my Second Brigade (Colonel Christ), intrenching itself between the lines and the enemy, when the First Division charged, my division rendered the most effectual assistance, capturing about 100 prisoners, with the colors of the Thirty-fifth Ninth Carolina, and a portion of the enemy’s works.

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*For portion of report (here omitted) covering operations from May 6 to June 3, 1864, see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.941.

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June 18, the division had a severe engagement, lasting nearly all day, moving up to, across beyond the deep cut of the Norfolk railroad, in front of the Taylor house, driving the enemy into his new works, notwithstanding our very heavy loss, and finally establishing ourselves nearer to the enemy than any other portion of the army.

A full report of the affair on the 30th of July had been forwarded;* also report of the action of the 19th and 20th of August, on the Weldon railroad.

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

O. B. WILLCOX,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Captain JOHN C. YOUNGMAN,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Ninth Army Corps.
HDQRS. (LATE) THIRD DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
Near Peebles’ House, Va., October 29, 1864.

MAJOR:+

FIFTH EPOCH.

June 12, in the night marched for the James River, via Tunstall’s Station. Crossed the Chickahominy on the 13th at Jones’ Bridge and the James on the 15th near Wilcox’s Landing, and came up on the left of Second Corps, in front of Petersburg, on the afternoon of the 16th. On the night of the 16th one brigade (Hartranft’s) was ordered to the support of Barlow’s division, Second Corps, and Christ’s brigade held the extreme left. On the morning of the 17th Hartranft reported back, and I was ordered to attack the enemy in their works on the right of the Avery house and in front of Shands’ house. At the latter point there was a good position for a battery, which I requested to place there, but time would not allow. My two brigades were formed partly in the ravine in front of Shands’ and partly on the crest beyond. Major-General Burnside indicated the point of attack on the enemy’s breast-works in an open field. Fixing this required point caused a little delay, by the necessary movement of troops, in the tangled ravine, farther to the right than that at first indicated by General Parke, chief of staff. Major J. St. Clair Morton, chief engineer of the corps, accompanied the commander of my leading brigade (General Hartranft), and verified the point, compass in hand, after Hartranft’s line was formed on the edge of the field. The direction indicated was so unfortunate that, as soon as my lines started from the brow of the ravine, they were swept by an enfilading fire of canister from a rebel battery, nearly opposite Shands’ house. Our artillery did nothing at the critical moment. My troops advanced at a double-quick, unsupported in any manner whatever. A cloud of blinding dusk was raised by the enemy’s artillery missiles. Hartranft’s left struck the enemy’s pits, but melted away in a moment. But eighteen out of ninety-five survived in the ranks of the left companies of the left regiment, and out of 1,890 men, which composed his lines, but 1,050 came out, and a few afterward through the Second Corps works on my right. Among the killed was the gallant Morton. Hartranft’s line having thus melted out of sight,

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*See p.574.

+For portion of report (here omitted) covering operations from May 4 to June 12, 1864, see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.942.

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Colonel Christ halted, and held his brigade, lying down, about half way from the ravine to the enemy’s works. This position the brave troops of Christ’s brigade continued to hold until night, when they performed important service. In the evening, with guns in position at the Shands house, the First Division moved over the same ground, but taking a better direction, with Crawford’s division, Fifth Corps, on their left. General Burnside’s orders were that General Potter, commanding Second Division, should go in after the First and my division follow the Second, but as, at the time General Ledlie, commanding the First Division, commenced his attack, I thought Potter’s troops could not be brought up in time, I ordered Christ’s brigade to support General Ledlie at once. Colonel Christ threw forward his supports rapidly on both flanks of Ledlie’s line, sharing the front attack, and capturing a stand of colors and 100 men of the Thirty-fifth North Carolina Regiment in the breast-works of the enemy. This consoling moment of victory was saddened by the loss of Captain Rhines, commanding First Michigan Sharpshooters, who fell at the enemy’s works amid the very cheers of his men, who had carried the point. The gallant Colonel Christ was also wounded on the field. Hartranft’s brigade was moved to supporting distance of Christ, but by General Burnside’s order was not sent forward.

June 18, at 4.30 a.m. I was ordered to move forward again and attack. A party of skirmishers was sent out in advance to feel for the enemy, and reported that the latter had fallen back, and with skirmishers deployed I moved on, Hartranft’s brigade in front, across the fields and into the woods, toward the Taylor house. In the woods we encountered the enemy’s skirmishers and a brisk shelling from their batteries across the Norfolk railroad. We drove back their skirmishers steadily out of the woods and into the cut of the Norfolk railroad, which formed a deep cover. On coming to the edge of the open field near the Taylor house, we found that the enemy had built a strong line of intrenchments beyond the railway cut and a winding ravine, through which ran a small creek, whose banks, immediately in my front, were steep and covered with wood and thicket. Here, then, were two lines of obstacles interposed between me and the enemy’s works. Moreover, the advance to the railroad was over an open field exposed to fire. The enemy’s line was about 800 yards from the Taylor house, running along the foot of Cemetery Hill, turning to our right toward the Hare house, and crossing the railway at a point where a gun in position swept the railroad cutting for some distance. I brought up Roemer’s battery and put part of it in position to command this gun, and part to reply to a battery which fired upon the left and front. General Crawford’s division, Fifth Corps, had advanced through the woods in connection with me, and on my left, and Potter’s (Second) division, Ninth Corps, now came up to support me. I ordered Hartranft to carry the railroad cut, which he did in good style. Crawford’s troops did the same on our left. After this General Barlow’s division, Second Corps, came up on my right, and I proposed to Crawford and Barlow replied that he had no orders to attack. I considered a vigorous attack on Barlow’s front essential to my success, as I was exposed to a heavy enfilading fire from the works that there curved around my right. The enemy’s sharpshooters were picking off my men in the cut every moment, notwithstanding the traverses we threw up. At 3 p.m. a general attack was ordered by the major-general commanding the army, and Hartranft began to move his command again, with Curtin’s brigade, of Potter’s

division, on his right, and Colonel Raulston, Twenty-fourth New York (dismounted) Cavalry (now commanding Christ’s brigade), supporting. The railway bank was quite high and so steep that holes had to be dug in the side of if for the men to plant their feet, and as soon as a man showed his head he came under fire. This, of course, led to vexatious labor and delay in order to prepare the line to climb the bank simultaneously. On the extreme left, where the bank was lower, the movement began at once, and here the troops got as far as the ravine, driving out the enemy at the same time with the Fifth Corps troops. Every preparation being made, under a galling fire, at 5.30 the whole of the division and part of Curtin’s brigade made a determined advance. The whole ground from the railroad to the ravine was carried, officers and men falling at every step. The ravine was crossed, the crest beyond gained, and under the fire of a heavy line of battle my heroic troops fought their way up to within 125 yards of the enemy’s intrenchments and held their ground. There were not over 1,000 uninjured left in the ranks to intrench themselves when night came on. The Second Brigade changed its commander three times on the field. Colonel Raulston, Twenty-fourth New York (dismounted) Cavalry, and Lieutenant-Colonel Travers, Forty-sixth New York, successively commanding this brigade, were shot down at their posts.

Losses for the two days: Killed and wounded, 1,102; missing, 129; aggregate, 1,231. In the course of the night my troops were relieved by the Second Division, and bivouacked in the woods.

June 20 I relieved a division of the Second Corps, and on the 23rd relieved Crawford’s division, Fifth Corps, and remained in the trenches from that time till and after July 30. Casualties in the trenches from June 19 to July 30: Killed and wounded, 339. I entered upon this campaign with about 6,000 men, of which one regiment (the Seventy-ninth New York) left me on the Ny River, to be mustered out, and three joined me-the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Wisconsin and Twenty-fourth New York (dismounted) Cavalry-prior to the 18th of June. The division lost in action 3,930, comparatively few of whom were taken prisoners. As a division it has done its duty quietly, but bravely and faithfully; never broke before the enemy; never lost a regiment or a gun, although its guns were always fighting near the main line, and never was saved from defeat by any other troops, although it has repeatedly saved others. The officers and men have done their duty. If anything is lacking it is in me, whose name sheds so little splendor on their noble deeds. I am especially indebted to my brigade commanders, Hartranft, Christ, and Humphrey, for their skill and courage of a high order.

Besides the regiments already mentioned, I would respectfully notice the Eighth Michigan, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Ely; the Twentieth Michigan, Lieutenant-Colonel Cutcheon commanding, and the Twenty-seventh Michigan, Colonel D. M. Fox. These regiments were always ready, brave, cool, and stubborn in face of the enemy. The Fiftieth and Fifty-first Pennsylvania have also behaved like veterans, meeting with bloody losses without discouragement, and always fighting gallantly. The One hundred and ninth New York and Twenty-fourth New York Cavalry, although new regiments, exhibited throughout the steadiness and bravery of old troops. Many of my bravest officers have fallen on fields of brightest glory. Colonel F. Graves, Eighth Michigan; Colonel Schall, Fifty-first Pennsylvania; Majors Lewis and Belcher, of the Eighth Michigan; Barnes, of the Twentieth; Piper, of the First [Michigan] Sharpshooters; and Moody, of the Twenty-seventh, have won a proud

niche in the temple of martyrs for their country’s salvation. To the zealous, brave, and skillful Roemer, and his excellent battery, and Twitchell and his fine battery, is due the soldiers’ best possession-enduring fame. Of my staff I would mention for distinguished gallantry, Captain R. A. Hutchins, assistant adjutant-general, wounded in the Wilderness; Lieutenant L. C. Brackett, aide-de-camp, wounded on the Totopotomoy; and Lieutenant William V. Richards, aide-de-camp. To the rest of the staff, especially Surgeon O’Connell, Captain R. D. Johnston, Second Michigan, acting assistant inspector-general, and Lieutenant Wells, ordnance officer, I am under lasting obligations.

The reports of General Hartranft, commanding First Brigade; Lieutenant Colonel B. M. Cutcheon, commanding Second Brigade, and Captains Roemer and Twitchel, battery commanders, are herewith inclosed; also nominal list of casualties.

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

O. B. WILLCOX,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Major P. M. LYDIG,

Assistant Adjutant-General.
HEADQUARTERS THIRD DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
Before Petersburg, Va., August 6, 1864.

COLONEL: I have the honor to report that on the 30th ultimo Hartranft’s brigade was promptly formed close in rear of the left of Ledlie’s division, and ready to move forward at 3.30 a.m. Humphrey’s brigade occupied part of the second line of our rifle-pits and the covered way leading to Hartranft’s brigade, and was ready at the same hour. The mine exploded at 4.45 a.m. As soon as the explosion, and the First Division advanced, Hartranft’s advance passed through our front line of pits in column of battalions (at 5 a.m.), and three regiments occupied the left of the exploded work on the left of the First Division, their ranks considerably broken by the irregularity of the ground. The First Division, halting in the crater, soon closed up the way so that two regiments of Hartranft’s brigade remained on the rear slope of the rebel work, and two regiments halted in rear of our works, waiting for space to move up. The distance between the two lines was about 140 yards. In obedience to instructions from General Burnside I ordered General Hartranft forward without waiting for the First Division, with instructions to gain Cemetery Hill if possible. This was about 5.15 a.m. Meantime the enemy had recovered from their surprise, and now concentrated so heavy a fire upon the point that our troops, in seeking temporary shelter, became still more mixed with each other and with the First Division, lost their ranks and much of their regimental organization, in spite of the efforts of many of the officers, and every new regiment that marched into the breach only increased the huddle and confusion, and interfered the more with the officers in reforming of this brigade into the crater, but reported to General Burnside that no more troops could assault at this breach to advantage, and recommended attack on the right and left of it. I sent repeated and peremptory orders to General Hartranft to advance, but he reported it impossible. I ordered him to send at least a regiment to the left and within the enemy’s lines, clean out the rebels on that flank as far as possible, and then advance. I am sure that both he with his staff and the regimental commanders did

all in their power to obey these orders. The Twenty-seventh Michigan Volunteers started toward the left, but its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Wright, was shot, and the enemy, while protected by their traverses, had so long a line of fire from their pits, that the Twenty-seventh was unable to make any headway, notwithstanding that General Hartranft succeeded in disinterring one of the rebel guns in the work and firing it down this flank in aid of the movement.

About 7 or 8 o’clock the colored division moved into and on the right of the crater, and I sent orders to Hartranft to follow up and support them, if they succeeded in advancing. At the same time I pushed forward Humphrey’s brigade in a front attack against the rebel rifle-pits on the left of the crater. The Second, Twentieth, and First Michigan Regiments went in line, and with no great loss carried the pits the length of their line, capturing some 40 prisoners, but the Forty-sixth New York broke, and in their disgraceful retreat threw two remaining regiments of the Second Brigade into temporary disorder and separated them from the line of battle. Meantime Hartranft got out another gun, and was able to use it on his right flank, when an assault was made upon that side and upon the negro troops, who now occupied it,without advancing toward Cemetery Hill. This assault on the crater was repulsed with much loss to the rebels, the troops of my division that were with Hartranft springing to the edge of the crater and firing until the enemy were driven back and sought the shelter of their rifle-pits. The two guns spoken of were manned by men of this division and of the Fourteenth [New York] Heavy Artillery, under the guidance of Sergt. W. Stanley, Company D of that regiment, who behaved with great skill, coolness, and bravery, but unfortunately was killed during the day. Another assault was afterward attempted on the rear of the work and was again repulsed. The enemy brought field artillery into position on several points long the Jerusalem plank road and Cemetery Hill,and a barn to the left of the hill. Their mortar batteries also got the range of the crater, and the shells fell with destructive precision among our troops, so closely packed together. Nevertheless, General Hartranft reported that he had some of his troops in better shape, and thought they could hold the position if ammunition could be supplied. I had already brought ammunition up to within 200 yards of the crater, and immediately sent in 10,000 rounds by men of the Fifty-first Pennsylvania, part of whom were shot in the attempt. The enemy now had full sweep of the ground between the crater and our rifle-pits, and at my request Colonel Guy V. Henry, commanding a brigade in the Eighteenth Corps, and General Ferrero, with detachments of colored troops, began to work from their side toward us. Affairs were in this condition when I was summoned, with the other division commanders, to corps headquarters about 12.30 p.m. During my absence the work was evacuated under orders of the brigade commanders inside, sent to them from the major-general commanding. At the time of the evacuation the enemy made a third assault with a column of re-enforcements from General Hill’s corps. This assault was virtually repulsed by the fire of our artillery, particularly Roemer’s (Thirty-fourth New York) and Mayo’s (Third Maine) batteries, and by the men remaining in the crater whom the order to withdraw did not reach. The rebel column, marching down the hill over open ground, was so shattered by our fire that if broke to one side, and the other fell back, rallied, and finally swayed off to the left of the crater into their rifle-pits, and advanced again under cover, when the most of our troops had

left the work. In this last affair this division lost some of its bravest men, who staid fighting it out to the last. Eight regiments were engaged, two regiments held in reserve, and the three that failed through the cowardice of the Forty-sixth New York to reach the rebel breastworks, were employed partly as provost guard and partly in manning our breast-works on the right and left of the crater to keep down the fire of the enemy from their pits during the evacuation of the rebel work. After dark this division promptly relieved that part of the Eighteenth Corps that had occupied its front during the action.

The losses of this division, amounting to 40 commissioned officers and 666 men, only 258 of whom were missing, have already been reported. We captured about 100 rebel prisoners.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

O. B. WILLCOX,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

[Lieutenant Colonel LEWIS RICHMOND,

Assistant Adjutant-General.]

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 570-576

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