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B&L: Operations South of the James River: II. Repelling the First Assault on Petersburg by R. E. Colston


At the end of April, 1864, I was transferred from the Department of Georgia to that of Virginia and was assigned by General H. A. Wise to the provisional command of the post of Petersburg, which I had already held from January to March, 1863. General Wise returned to Petersburg about June 1st, and I remained there while waiting for another assignment.

At that time the lines covering Petersburg on the south side of the Appomattox formed a semicircle of about eight miles development, resting upon the river at each extremity. With the exception of a few lunettes and redoubts at the most commanding positions, they were barely marked out, and a horseman could ride over them without the least difficulty almost everywhere, as I myself had done day after day for weeks just before the fight. They differed in toto from the shortened and formidable works constructed later by General Lee’s army.

On the 9th of June the lines were entirely stripped of regular troops, with the exception of Wise’s brigade on our extreme left, and of Sturdivant’s battery of four guns. Every other regiment had been ordered across the James to aid General Lee on the north side. A few skeleton companies of home guards (less than 150 men) occupied the redoubts half a mile from the river on the left, which were armed with heavy artillery. Then came a gap of a mile and a half to lunette 16, occupied by 30 home guards with 4 pieces of stationary artillery. One mile farther to the

right were two howitzers of Sturdivant’s battery ; one mile farther still were lunettes 26, 27, and 28, at the intersection of the lines with the Jerusalem road; but neither there nor for four miles more to the river on our right was there a man or gun.

During the night of June 8th-9th General Kautz and Colonel Spear, with four regiments of cavalry and 4 pieces of artillery, crossed the Appomattox on a pontoon-bridge, about 7 miles below Petersburg, and on the morning of the 9th they made their appearance in front of the left of our lines, while the Federal gun-boats opened a heavy fire upon Fort Clifton and other positions on the river. The alarm-bell was rung in the city about 9 o’clock, and every man able to shoulder a musket hurried out to the lines. Colonel P. H. Archer, a veteran of the Mexican war, who had commanded a Confederate battalion in my brigade in 1862, but now commanding the Home Guards, hastened to take position at lunettes Nos. 27 and 28 on the Jerusalem road with 125 men. This force was composed of Second Class Reserves, men exempted from active service on account of age or infirmities, and boys under conscription age, who had had no military training. Very few of them wore a uniform, and they were armed with inferior muskets and rifles, for all the best arms had to be reserved for troops in the field.

At the first sound of alarm I mounted my horse, hastened to report to General Wise and to offer my services. He thanked me warmly, saying that he was just going across the river to bring up the reserve infantry as promptly as possible, together with other reinforcements, and directed me to take command of all the forces in the lines and use them according to my judgment, with only one specific order, viz., that lunette No. 10 must be held at any hazard. He added as he turned his horse’s head: “For God’s sake, General, hold out till I come back, or all is lost!”

At lunette No. 16 I found the men at their guns, but the enemy were not yet in sight. They had reconnoitered from a distance the positions on our left; seeing heavy guns on the works, and not aware of the very small number of the defenders, they had continued their reconnoissance toward the right, nearly hidden from our view by the wooded and undulating character of the ground. We had no scouts or mounted men to send out for information. I had been at lunette 16 about an hour, and it was nearly 11 o’clock, when a courier arrived from Petersburg with a note from General Wise, saying that the enemy were advancing by the Jerusalem road upon Colonel Archers position, and that reinforcements were on the way. I left my aide, Lieutenant J. T. Tosh, in command at lunette 16, with orders not to leave that position until relieved. I galloped on alone toward the Jerusalem road, and when half-way there I heard the rattle of musketry from that point. Being just then at the position of Sturdivant’s section, I ordered the sergeant to bring on one of his howitzers to lunette 28, and hastened toward it, catching glimpses of Federal cavalry still moving to our right, parallel to our intrenchments. Arrived at lunettes 27 and 28 I found that Colonel Archer had disposed his

small force very judiciously in the low trenches .  A wagon had been overturned across the road and, together with a hastily built rail-fence, formed a pretty good barricade. A detachment of Federal cavalry had just made a spirited charge and been checked by this obstruction and by the scattering fire of the militia. Several dead horses, some sabers and carbines, and a couple of prisoners were the tokens of the repulse, and the men were in high spirits at their success in this their first fight. It was evident, however, that the enemy had only been feeling the position and were preparing for a more serious attack. Their line was visible on the edge of the woods back of the Gregory house, and our slender ranks were extended to the right and left to present an equal front. In a few minutes the howitzer that I had ordered up came in sight and was welcomed with cheers by our men. I placed it in lunette 28, and took my position in the trenches, which did not cover us more than waist-high.

Very soon an advance was made by the enemy’s dismounted skirmishers, while a mounted line in close order appeared behind the Gregory house. I impressed upon the men the necessity of holding their fire until the enemy were at close range, and this direction was well observed. But the howitzer opened fire and the Federal skirmishers fell back under cover and commenced a continuous fire of small-arms. A number of their men had taken position in the Gregory house and were shooting, from the windows and from the garret, some firing through openings made by knocking off the shingles. I directed the artillery sergeant to send a few shells at the house to dislodge them, but the distance was so short that the shells passed through the building before exploding, and failed to set it on fire as I had hoped. Meanwhile the mounted line, some three hundred yards back, presented a tempting mark and I told the sergeant to give them canister. To my intense vexation he replied that he had not a single charge of canister with his piece. I then directed him to shell the mounted line, but several shells passed over the line and burst harmlessly beyond it. I now ordered him to cut the fuse at the closest notch, and, pointing the piece myself very low, I had the satisfaction of seeing the shell explode just in front of the line of cavalry and make a great gap in its ranks, causing its immediate retreat.

All this time the bullets were flying uncomfortably thick and close, but I saw no signal of another advance. Meanwhile our men, closely hugging the low breastworks and holding back their fire, were suffering no harm. In about half an hour a cannon shot was fired at us, then another, followed by others in quick succession. The enemy had paused while waiting for the arrival of their battery. So far from being dismayed, the brave civilians around me, with Colonel Archer at their head, offered to charge the battery, but I knew that the moment they left the cover of the trenches to cross the open ground they would be destroyed by the breechloading carbines of the dismounted men supporting the battery and far overlapping our front. Our only hope was in delay. I called for a volunteer


The spires of Petersburg are seen to the left of the reservoir. In front of the reservoir is the ravine of Lieutenant’s Creek that encircles the eastern outskirts of the city and afforded the Confederates a concealed and convenient way by which either wing of their lines could be reenforced by troops from the other.

to mount my horse, find General Wise, and let him know that we could hold out but a very short time longer. A lieutenant of the Junior Reserves, Wales Hurt, a youth of eighteen, promptly offered to go, and I watched him galloping away until hidden from view by the bend of the road, while the bullets were knocking up the dust all around him and under his horse’s feet.

By this time our ability to retain the position was a question of minutes only, but on these few minutes hung the rescue or the capture of the city. I knew that if we were driven in before a sufficient Confederate force recrossed the Appomattox the enemy would at once ride into the town and burn the bridges, after which they would have no difficulty in holding the place until their infantry came up, and then all of General Lee’s army would be unable to force a recrossing. With the town would be lost the main lines of railway upon which our army depended almost entirely for its supplies.

But the end was very near. The enemy, sheltered by the Gregory house and the defective construction of our works, which allowed approach under cover to within fifty yards, redoubled the fire of their skirmishers and artillery; while a line in open order, overlapping both our flanks, advanced, firing rapidly. The brave militia discharged their pieces at close range. Numbers of them fell killed or wounded, and before the survivors could reload the enemy turned our left flank and more of our men fell by bullets that struck us in the rear from lunette No. 26, which we had not had men enough to occupy. Yet those heroic citizens held their ground. In the heat of the fight I picked up and discharged at the enemy two or three of the muskets dropped by our fallen men. We were now hemmed in on three sides, and only a narrow path leading through an abrupt ravine offered a way of escape. The howitzer, which continued its fire to the last, was captured while limbering up, the horses being shot in their traces, and two artillerymen killed. Some of the militia were killed or wounded with the bayonet or carbine butts, and many were captured. Our shattered remnants made their way down and across the ravine and re-formed at my command on Reservoir Hill, in order, if needed, to support Graham’s battery, which had just arrived and unlimbered on the top of the hill.(1)

After driving us from the trenches the enemy paused awhile to call in their dismounted men and to send to their rear our wounded and prisoners. They then formed in mounted column, with a few files thrown forward in open order. They advanced upon the main road, evidently expecting to enter the city without further opposition.(2)

The moments gained at such fearful cost barely gave time for Graham’s battery to cross the bridge. They came up Sycamore street at full gallop and unlimbered on the summit of Reservoir Hill just as the head of the Federal column was coming down the opposite slope into the hollow. The battery opened fire, and with rapidity and precision hurled a storm of shell and canister upon the approaching cavalry. The enemy, who thought themselves already in possession of the city, halted in surprise. But just at this moment, while they were yet hesitating, Dearing’s cavalry, which had followed after Graham’s battery, charged upon Kautz’s and Spear’s column with irresistible impetuosity. The latter wheeled about, but re-formed on the top of the next hill and gallantly endeavored to make a stand there, being joined by another column advancing upon the Blandford road. But this also was checked by a section of Sturdivant’s battery, which came on their flank from another road. Under the fire of artillery and the charge of Dearing’s cavalry the enemy retreated. In Jackson’s field, about a mile beyond Blandford church, our cavalry captured a howitzer, complete, with its team, and in the subsequent pursuit killed or captured a number of the enemy.


(1) The loss of the militia in this conflict was 12 killed (not counting the 2 artillerymen), 20 wounded, and 30 prisoners,—62 out of 125.— R. E. C.

(2) Lieutenant Hurt had delivered his message and was returning at this time by the same road. Coming suddenly upon the leading Federal files he was shot dead.— R. E. C.



  1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pages 535-537
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