Editor’s Note: Several weeks back I happened upon a post by Amos Ingblom of Sweden on a miniatures wargaming site. He was making a diorama of the Ninth Corps’ assault on Fort Mahone on the morning of April 2, 1865 at the Siege of Petersburg. One thing led to another, and Amos agreed to do a short guest post here highlighting his work, and focusing on the role of the 39th New Jersey at the storming of Fort Mahone during the Third Battle of Petersburg. You can see even more detail at his blog, Fort Mahone 1865.
In his introductory post, Amos explains what he’s trying to do:
What is ”Fort Mahone”?
Fort Mahone, or ”Battery No. 29″ was a Confederate redoubt, or earthen fort outside Petersburg in Virginia during 1864 and 1865. It was more commonly known as ”Fort Damnation” among both Federal and Confederate troops. The diorama attempts to recreate the fort and the final battle that took place there on April 2, 1865. The fort and troops are recreated in 1/72 scale plastic and metal figures/accessories and feature hundreds of individually painted figures.
In any case, I thought this would be a unique and interesting way to close out my 150th anniversary observance of the Siege of Petersburg. Enjoy!
Note that all of the diorama pics can be clicked for much more detailed views.
“A Miracle of Hope, The storming of Battery 29”
by Amos Ingblom
On the 19th of May 1909 President Taft visited Petersburg in Virginia to honor the Pennsylanian dead in the battle of Fort Mahone during the Civil War some fifty years earlier. A monument was unveveiled to honor Col George W. Gowen of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Pennsylvanians however, were not the only Northern units during that fateful day in April 1865. The units attacking Fort Mahone were spearheaded by New Jerseymen of the 39th New Jersey, led by Col. Abram Wildrick.
There was no mention of the 39th in Taft’s speech, although the regiment was probably first over the walls and fought as bravely as any other unit in the division. Over the century following the Civil War there would be no monuments in their honor, and their story would be forgotten. The struggle for Ft Mahone itself and even the Petersburg campaign is largely ignored by historians. Even when the siege of Petersburg is discussed attention is often on earlier battles during 1864, the breakthrough usually focus on other actions that day, like the VI Corps breakthrough or the battle of Fort Gregg. With this diorama I hope to re-create this forgotten, but important event in world history, and to celebrate the brave unit that led the fateful attack at dawn on April 2 1865.
The 39th New Jersey: The Unexpected heroes
The 39th NJ Infantry regiment was raised in the Fall of 1864, Abram Calvin Wildrick (1836-1894) was appointed Colonel. It was one of the last regiments raised in that state. At this stage of the war finding recruits was hard, and at first only four companies were formed. Most men came from Essex County and neighbouring Morris county. Huge bounties were paid to the men who signed up for a year. Company K however, was said to be composed of “a stronger and heartier lot of men and consequently more fit for duty than any other company in the regiment, being made up of hardy Morris county men.” This company, recruited by David S Allen had only three deserters.
The 39th was sent to Petersburg in October of 1864, they would see no real action during this time. In the spring of 1865 the regiment manned Ft. Davis, a four-sided redoubt near Ft. Sedgwick, which lay opposite redoubt battery no 29, Fort Mahone or “Fort Damnation”.
The attack on April 2 1865
Following the defeat at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault against Confederate entrenchments outside Petersburg.
The IX Corps was ordered to take Ft Mahone, the strongest fort along the Confederate line. Ft Mahone was situated a few hundred yards from Ft Sedgwick. The fort was designated “battery No 29” by Union commanders. The constant firing between the two forts eaned it the nickname “Fort Damnation” while Ft Segwick became known as “Ft Hell”. The no-man land was called “purgatory” and the picket lines “heaven”. The three sided redoubt was manned by a portion of the 53rd VA, whose battleflag can be seen flying over the parapet. The fort had three artillery pieces and a few mortars in action during the fight on April 2. The 39th was chosen to lead the assault on the fort. Ten men from each company was gathered as a skirmish force and moved ahead. At 4.30 AM the rest of the 39th NJ moved out from the picked line and advanced against Ft Mahone, behind them came 48th PA, 45th PA, 58th MA and further back the 56th MA. This force heavily outnumbered the Confederates, who could perhaps muster some 1,500 men in the sector. The Union Forces of the IX Corps totalled some 14,000 men.The 39th NJ numbered apox 1,000 men. Prior to the infantry charge union artillery bombarded the Confederate lines for hours, however this had little effect on the defenses. Company K, the chosen color-company went in front, barely seeing a few yards ahead.
Chevaux de frise
In front of the Confederate lines abatis, fraise and chevaux de frise* halted and slowed down anyone brave enough to attack them. In front of the IX Corps was a double row of abatis and Chevaux de frise. A waist deep ditch filled with muddy water awaited those who managed to come through. Pioneers armed with only hatchets and axes cut through these entanglements, opening up for the attacking columns at dawn. Many pioneers were struck down by bullets as Confederate riflemen picked their targets. During the day Northernes constructed a bridge over the ditch using Confederate Chevaux de frise.
*Cheval de frise means “Frisian horse”, when linked together usually with chain or wire they’re called Chevaux de Frise. In Europe this obstacle is also known as “spanish rider”.
“On the parapet”
The 39th NJ breached the line of Chevaux de fries and stormed into the ditch and began climbing the steep walls, some would fall into the ditch and drown. The 39th overwhelmed the defenders and took a few prisoners, but most rebels retreated through a trench leading to a secondary line.
Just like the VI Corps, there would be different claims as to who breached the enemy line first, or in this case, the fort. The colonel of the 39th, Abram Wildrick was said to be the first. Wildrick had a part of his moustasche shot off while another bullet pierced his clothing, a few other officers however were killed or wounded. Wildricks actions was described as “gallant and meritorious” by his superiors.
The colorbearer James Jarvis could perhaps also be a candidate. Storming into the fort, the colorseargant waved the colors defiantly on top of the parapet before being shot in the arm. As Jarvis came bounding into the fort, the 48th took notice and charged over the enemy walls to save the Jersey colors.
Richard H Clow of the 56th MA claimed to be “one of the first in the Rebel fort.”
Bryan Grimes, the Confederate commander launched a series of counterattacks during the day which proved too much for the Garden Staters and Pennsylvanians, who began falling back from the mazes and trenches in the fort at 3 PM.
As the unstoppable tidal wave of grey Confederates began pushing the 39th NJ out of the fort, the colorful Zouaves of the 114th PA appeared on the scene and stemmed the attack. Both sides were now holding sections of the fort and darkness fell on the bloody scene. During the night Federals evacuated the wounded. As firing from Confederates in the nearby trenches had stopped during the early morning hours, members of the 114th PA entered Ft Mahone and found it deserted.
During the struggle for Ft. Mahone the IX Corps suffered 1,700 wounded and dead. The 39th NJ lost over 90 dead and wounded. How many Confederates fell is not known. Among the visitors to Fort Mahone on April 3 was Abraham Lincoln, escorted by cavalry and personal bodyguards. Many of the dead were still left unburied, and as Lincoln climbed the parapet and watched the destruction, “big tears rolled down the president’s cheeks,” remembered a horse soldier.
The 39th was disbanded in Newark in June 1865. Like so many other regiments raised late in the war, there was no unit pride compared to early war regiments, and no lengthy descriptions of their short service, and no re-unions. As they returned to New Jersey, the welcome was “neither cordial nor general as it deserved.”
Within the year, slavery was extinct in North America. Slavery was dying elsewhere. The democracy movement in Europe would be given a boost and brought hope to millions. Although forgotten by history, the 39th New Jersey had helped realize the liberties that millions enjoy today.
For many, many more images of this labor of love, go check out Fort Mahone 1865.