November 5, 1864: Confederate Payback for October 27
On the evening of November 5, 1864, 150 years ago to the day, two distinct elements of Bushrod Johnson’s Division assaulted the Union skirmish line east of Petersburg, in front of Fort Haskell and Fort Morton. The goal was two-fold. First, there was a desire to get payback for the unexpected and successful assault of the 148th Pennsylvania on “Fort Crater”, near Elliott’s Salient in front of Fort Morton, on the evening of October 27. Second, in a sector where the main lines were uncomfortably close, the Confederates wanted more advance warning of an attack by moving forward their picket line.
One attack by three companies of the 41st Alabama, sortieing from Gracie’s Salient, bagged 31 prisoners without the loss of a single man in front of Fort Haskell. The Federal picket line was precarious in this section, with those heading to the picket posts crossing a small bridge over a pond. After the 41st Alabama captured these forward posts, the Northerners were more than happy to cede them permanently. No less a personage than Second Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock had the following to say about this section of the picket line:
“It was intended long since to withdraw that part of the picket in front of the pond, as it was found that the enemy were damming up the water. It was not done, as I was reluctant to give up the ground, and I ordered before the late move that bridges should be built across this pond. But there have been so many changes on the line and so much inattention on the part of officers that it was neglected. I do not now think it advisable to re-occupy the old line as it is of no particular advantage and is much exposed. Its loss was not known till daylight by me, and it would have been a very difficult matter to re-establish that part of the line.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to identify the Federal regiment manning the picket posts beyond the pond. If you can point me to a source which does so, please use the Contact link at the top of this and every page on the site.
Another attack, further south between the Crater and Fort Morton, happened at the same time. Two hundred men of the Holcombe SC Legion set out from the lines in front of the Crater to take the Federal picket line there held by the 120th New York and 11th New Jersey. They were initially successful. However, the Union soldiers had taken the precaution of removing the rear escarpment from their forward trenches in this area, so the Holcombe Legion was unprotected from incoming Union fire. This and a counterattack from men of the 11th Massachusetts proved problematic for the South Carolinians. In addition, the configuration of the lines led to a devastating flanking fire coming in from the right. Men were sent with entrenching tools dig on that flank, but the effort proved unsuccessful. By 5 a. m. the men of the Holcombe Legion had withdrawn back to their original lines.
Bushrod Johnson’s twin attacks on the night of November 5, 1864 had different outcomes. Gracie’s assault took advantage of favorable terrain to take and hold the outer Federal picket line. Wallace’s Holcombe Legion, on the other hand, faced serious disadvantages of terrain, and were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid to gain a measure of revenge for the “Fort Crater” attack of October 27. The fighting most men at Petersburg were used to, that of the picket lines, continued on unabated day after day, a grinding war of attrition which was slowly whittling down the Southern war machine.
For Further Reading…
- OR XLII, P1, page 294: Number 47. Reports of Major General John Gibbon, U. S. Army commanding Second Division, of operations August 25 and November 5
- OR XLII, P1, pages 397–398: Number 100. Reports of Bvt. Brigadier General Robert McAllister, U. S. Army, commanding Third Brigade, of operations August 13-20 and 25, September 9-10, October 1-5 and 24-28, November 5, and December 7-12
- OR XLII, P1, pages 909–910: Number 362. Petersburg Campaign Reports of Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, C. S. Army, commanding Johnson’s division
- OR XLII, P1, pages 933-934: Number 365. Petersburg Campaign Reports of Brigadier General William H. Wallace, C. S. Army, commanding Elliott’s brigade, of operations October 27 and November 5
- Regimental Histories:
- Holcombe SC Legion Infantry
- Company H, Holcombe Legion Infantry Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, Confederate States of America by Boozer, H.S.
- Campfire Stories and Reminiscences by Owen, Dock
- 41st Alabama
- The 41st Alabama Confederate Infantry Regiment by Berry, Walter Leslie , Jr. and Berry, & Marion Drust
- 41st Alabama Infantry Regiment, Confederate States of America : a narrative history of a Civil War regiment from West Central Alabama by Morales, William R.
- 11th Massachusetts
- 120th NY
- The One hundred and twentieth regiment New York state volunteers. A narrative for the union by Van Santvoord, C. (1894) , pages 157-158
- 11th NJ
- History of the Eleventh New Jersey Volunteers, From Its Organization to Appomattox by Marbaker, T.D. (1898)
- Holcombe SC Legion Infantry