Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Hero of Fort Haskell

   

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in Deeds of Valor, Volume 1

THE HERO OF FORT HASKELL1

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DoVV1Pg384CharlesHHoughton14thNYHA

CHARLES H. HOUGHTON,
Captain, Co. L, 14th New York Artillery.
Highest rank attained: Colonel.
Born at Houghton Homestead, Macomb, St.
Lawrence Co., N. Y., April 30, 1842.

When General Meade changed General Burnside’s plan of attack at the battle of the Crater, Va., July 30, 1864, and ordered that one division of white troops should lead the assault, if fell by lot to the Fourteenth New York [Heavy] Artillery to lead the charge. The mine extending from the Union lines to a point under the Confederate strong hold was ready to be sprung July 29. During the night General Ledlie’s Division, to which the Fourteenth New York [Heavy] Artillery belonged, marched out through the covered ways and formed lines just in rear of the most advanced Federal works, where it awaited the explosion with no little anxiety, and as the men had been without sleep all night many lay down for a brief rest.

“No word could be uttered aloud; orders were given in a whisper,” says Captain Charles H. Houghton, of Company L, Fourteenth New York [Heavy] Artillery. “After hours of silent and anxious waiting we knew the time for the explosion had passed and later learned that a lieutenant and a sergeant of the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania had gone into the tunnel and found that the burning fuse had gone out where it had been spliced. It was relighted and soon after, about daylight, it reached the magazines. The effect was beyond description. The earth under us, and for some distance back of us, seemed to be the brink of a volcano, or the long roll of an ocean swell. Soldiers lying on the ground were almost lifted to a standing position; and then with a mighty power the earth opened, flames shot upward, carrying the earth, timbers, cannon, men, and everything within the fort, to a distance of seventy- five or a hundred feet. The scene was magnificently sublime, though it brought death and destruction to all within it, and to add to the reality of this inferno some two hundred pieces of artillery in our works opened fire with death-dealing missiles upon the enemy’s line. Under this fire the charging columns advanced, meeting at the outset a serious obstruction, as our works at the nearest point, being lower down on the sloping ground, had to be built higher than usual and had not been prepared for scaling. But ladders were quickly formed by some of our men placing their bayonets between the logs and holding the butt end of the muskets at hip and on shoulders, up which the others climbed, aided by officers standing on top of the parapet. But as rapidity of action at such time was of the greatest importance, Colonel [Elisha] Marshall, commanding the brigade [2/1/IX/AotP], and standing below within the works, ordered me to go forward with what men I had. We moved without waiting for the rest of our command, at double-quick, to the Crater, and planted our flag first over its ruins, capturing many prisoners and two brass field pieces which were in the left wing of the fort not damaged by the explosion. I decided that the magazines must be near, and my men soon uncovered the entrance, which had been filled with falling earth. One gun was soon prepared for action, and silenced one of the enemy’s guns which was giving us canister. Our first fire brought in a number of prisoners forced to surrender or meet death.

“On reaching the Crater, an appalling sight was witnessed. We realized something of the terrible effect which the explosion of so much powder, placed twenty-five feet directly under the fort, must cause. We found an excavation some thirty feet deep, sixty feet wide, and probably 130 feet long. One huge lump of red clay was thrown on the surface facing our own works ; broken guns, timbers, sand bags, men buried in every conceivable position, some with an arm, hand or head only uncovered ; others with feet uppermost, and still others on top of the fallen earth, with bones broken. One had fallen to the bottom of a shaft twelve feet deep, at the entrance of a countermining tunnel, toward our lines.

“We were not able to learn, nor had we time to explore its extent, but were informed by a captured lieutenant that two such shafts had been sunk, tunnels being worked at the time, and, had they gone deep enough, would have discovered our own.

“We were forced to pass through the Crater, climb the opposite slanting wall, and over the crest to traverses beyond, where our men received the fire of the Confederates from whom, in a hand-to-hand encounter, we captured a Confederate battle flag.

“But in the meantime the enemy had not been idle. A battery had been brought up from the left to a position out of range of our artillery, and opened fire with grape and canister on our troops, and sweeping the crest of the Crater, aided also by the guns in the two forts on our right, and one on the left flank, re-enforcements having been thrown into the Confederate main line on both flanks, their terrific and incessant fire concentrated upon that point rendered it impossible for us to advance and deploy.

“A brigade of General Mahone’s Confederate division advanced to a charge, during which their battery had to withhold fire, giving us an opportunity to bring into action one of the captured guns, and by turning it upon this column efficient aid was rendered to our infantry in repulsing this first effort to dislodge us. The ammunition from the rebel magazine being nearly exhausted, and our gunners too exposed in working it in plain view and range of the enemy, we were compelled to discontinue its use, and soon thereafter Mahone’s entire Confederate division advanced and charged our colored troops, who had done splendid fighting, and, being now compressed to a small space with no protection on front nor flank, were forced back, carrying the other troops with them to our main line.

“I passed through the Crater along the rear wall to the wing where I had left the two captured guns in charge of a sergeant and detachment. The entrance, a narrow passageway, was covered by rebel sharpshooters, and General Hartranft called out quickly to me to drop down and crawl in. I and my orderly, Corporal Stanford Bigelow, passed through safely.

“I found Generals Potter, Hartranft, Griffin, and one or two others; General Bartlett was in the pit of the Crater, shot through his artificial leg, and unable to walk, thus preventing his escape. The rebels were then on all sides, except that fronting our lines, and firing into the Crater. Our men still within it were placed along the rear and flank crest to keep them back ; several were thus killed, shot through the head; these would fall backward, and if they did not roll to the bottom of the pit, laid with head toward it, so that the blood ran down its sloping walls in small rivulets to the bottom, where it formed pools before its absorption by the red clay.

“At this time the pit and its sides were filled with dead and wounded who could not escape capture or death. Intense suffering was being caused from want of water and surgeons ; and unprotected from the sun, with not a breath of air stirring in that hell hole, many must have died under the torture, and later, many more, still living, it is believed, were buried therein by the Confederates. If the sight was appalling to iron nerves, what must it have been to those inside, awaiting death so heroically?

“Then we turned our gaze to the open field between the lines, over which we had advanced at daylight, now strewn with the bodies of hundreds of our dead and dying, white and colored, with the hot midday rays of a July sun beating mercilessly down upon them, which was still swept by the concentrated cross-fire of the enemy’s artillery and infantry, over which it seemed impossible for one to pass and escape death. After remaining there for some time in the stifling heat amid such scenes of carnage and suffering, and realizing that a protracted stay would probably add to the already numerous prisoners taken by the enemy, or lengthen our long death roll, I decided to make an attempt to reach at the nearest point, our lines, over which I could see my own regimental flag floating in the slight sultry breeze, indicating its direction, which was favorable to my plan already quickly formed of releasing those general officers and all others not seriously wounded. On informing them of my decision, they protested, and endeavored to convince me of the great danger and almost certain death to go across that field under such a fire. I replied that it was sure death or starvation in rebel prisons, to remain, and I preferred to take the risk then. After watching the explosion of shell and noting the point of its striking the ground, I gave word to my orderly that on the explosion of the next I would make the start, he to follow a short distance in my rear, so we should not be in line, and we could pass beyond that point before another explosion and before the range could be changed. The rebels saw us right after the start, but passing through showers of bullets we reached, with a bound, the crest of our works and sprang from the parapet within, safe and unscathed. I immediately ordered my men, who had received ammunition and were prepared to hold these works, to open a hot fire on the enemy to the right of the Crater, who, apparently expecting another attack, replied vehemently, and very soon the field was covered with smoke, through the pall of which every general left in the angle or wing escaped in safety to our lines.”

Four months after this battle Captain Charles H. Houghton was assigned to duty at Fort Haskell, Va., as commander of the post, the garrison consisting of 350 men, including several batteries of artillery. About this time printed copies of an order of amnesty issued by General Grant, providing that deserters coming into the Union lines, bringing their arms and accoutrements, would be paid a specified sum, and, on taking the oath not to again take up arms against the United States, would be furnished free transportation north, had been freely circulated along the Confederate lines. Through the operation of this very order, the Confederate general, Gordon, succeeded in entering the Union lines in his night attack on Fort Stedman on the early morning of March 25, 1865 — the last general assault by Lee’s army on the Federal intrenchments.

DoVV1Pg386FortHaskellMarch251865

“A SHELL EXPLODED AT HIS FEET.”

General Gordon decided to make his assault from Colquitt’s Salient, a point not more than 200 yards from the Federal lines, with a force of about 12,000 infantry supported by a large cavalry force and with a heavy force in reserve. Shortly after three o’clock on the morning of the 25th when the darkness was intense, a file of 100 picked men advanced from the Confederate lines and, utilizing the tenor of the amnesty order, the first man called out: “Don’t shoot; we want to come in.” In this way the sentinel did not fire and was immediately killed by a noiseless bayonet thrust. Aided by the darkness, and followed by detachments to cut away the abatis, the force of the enemy grew until, having the strength of an assaulting column, they attacked that part of the unoccupied works to the right and rear of Battery Ten, next north of Fort Stedman. Here they were met by a portion of the Fourteenth New York [Heavy] Artillery, garrisoning the section of the line which was in position. Captain Cleary, Lieutenant Thomson and Sergeant Delack hauled one gun to the sally port and opened on the assailants, capturing several prisoners and the flag of the Twenty-Sixth South Carolina Infantry. Lieutenant E. B. Nye, commanding the section of artillery in Battery Ten, was shot down while gallantly defending his guns.

Commandant Houghton, two days previous to Gordon’s assault on Stedman, had added 60,000 rounds of ammunition for all arms to his magazine supply, and on the eve of the 25th had advised his officers to be ready to resist an attack very early the next morning. When asked for his reasons for having such an opinion, he said his premonition was strong and unexplainable and that he was advising extraordinary precautions, as he felt that they were necessary.

About three o’clock the next morning, Sylvester E. Hough, the last watch on the outer post, saw blue lights flashing along the rebel picket pits and heard the sound of chopping on the lines. He fired a signal gun, and as a more rapid fire than usual was heard along the left front of Fort Stedman the men in Fort Haskell were forming in line and answering the roll call. Captain Houghton hurried to the banquette on the right flank of his fort and at once saw that the enemy were on the left flank of Stedman, between the two forts. Word came that the Confederates were stealing along in the dark toward the front of Fort Haskell, at which the captain ordered his men to their positions on the banquette of the front parapet. There, cautioning his men to reserve their fire till he gave the command, the garrison stood silently in the darkness, with one of Captain Werner’s guns loaded with case shot, and trained on the opening of the abatis through which the Union pickets passed in and out.

As Captain Houghton and his men stood there in enforced silence, the Confederate column in double rank reached the abatis and their commanders could be heard cautioning the men to move more quietly and steadily, and, “we’ll have their works—steady men, steady.”

“Wait,” whispered Captain Houghton, “wait till you can see them; then fire.”

“Steady, men, steady,” again whispered the Confederate leader as the Union soldiers waited breathless and with leveled muskets.

“Fire! ” shouted Captain Houghton, and a terrific volley from cannon and muskets, heralded by a single, awful crash, swept along the ranks of the astonished band. Surprised, almost demoralized, the enemy fell back a short distance to reform and advance again up the slope. As before, they were received with a concerted volley from cannon and musketry, to once more go reeling to the rear. Then what were left quickly divided into small squads and attempted by making simultaneous attacks at different points to carry the fort, but most of them were killed for their folly.

As soon as it was light enough to see that the American flag was still flying over Fort Haskell, all the artillery of the Confederate works and the captured guns in Fort Stedman and Batteries Eleven and Twelve were turned in a concentrated fire on Captain Houghton and his gallant garrison, while the Third New Jersey Battery, in position at embrazures on the right flank and on parapet, was firing shell and case-shot into the enemy.

The rebels made three furious attacks, but were driven back in confusion each time. Up to this time the garrison had been fighting almost alone, but now they had been joined by Major Randall and a few who had escaped from Fort Stedman, and small detachments from other regiments had come in. However, on the other hand, a Union reserve artillery battery near Meade’s Station began firing upon Fort Haskell, under the mistaken notion that the fort had been captured by the enemy. Color-bearer Robert Kiley with colors and a guard was sent out under fire to the rear to signal the battery to cease firing. Four of the color-guard were shot down.

During the second charge by the enemy on his right flank and rear Captain Houghton, while standing near his colors on the banquette, had his right leg shattered by a fragment from a shell which exploded at his feet, while other fragments wounded his right hand severely. He was immediately carried to a bomb proof facing the parapet, where he lay, watching and directing his men. The proposed capture of Fort Haskell resulted in a complete failure.

Captain Houghton was removed to a field hospital and his leg was amputated at the thigh. He recovered and rejoined his regiment at Fort Reno, to be honorably discharged several months later.

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The Battle of the Crater (Petersburg, Va.)—On the 25th of June, 1864, work was begun under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, of the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry, upon the structure known as the Crater. This work, approved by General Burnside, commander of the Ninth Corps, had the disapproval of General Meade, commander, and Major Duane, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac. Accordingly Colonel Pleasants was forced to prosecute his work, under almost insurmountable disadvantage. Then, too, General Burnside’s plan of attack, submitted by request of General Meade, was changed in several very material particulars. In the end, so far as the construction and explosion of the mine were concerned, the effort was a success. Otherwise, and for very many reasons, it was a great calamity to the Union Army. The Federal losses aggregated over 7,000 men, killed, wounded and missing.

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Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:

Source:

  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 384-389

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