Editor’s Note: Henry Fitzgerald Charles of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (dismounted) wrote a short memoir based on his diary from the Siege of Petersburg in 1864/65. A transcription of this memoir was placed online in 2001 as a part of the web site The Civil War Diary of Henry Fitzgerald Charles, by the web site’s owner and Henry F. Charles descendant John Neitz. Mr. Neitz made the appearance of this memoir at The Siege of Petersburg Online possible, and I thank him greatly for his cooperation. The transcription on this page is copyrighted by John Neitz as a part of his web site and may not be reproduced without his express written consent. All rights reserved.
The Battle of Poplar Grove Church: September 30, 18641
(BTC Editor’s Note: The following text describes the Battle of Poplar Grove, fought on September 30, 1864.)
I got a letter from my father and in reading it, I mistook the heading for Burnside’s Headquarters, which was not far away. I went to the Lieutenant’s quarters and asked if I could go over to Burnside’s Headquarters to see my father. He asked if I was not one of those who refused to drill and I said he was right, but that I had a change of mind. He said, “Then get out and drill.” I said not a bit of it, that it was over a year since I had seen my father and I may never see him again and I offered to show him the letters. But without looking he said I could go, but I should be sure to be back and drill tomorrow. I left in a hurry and I looked all over Burnside’s Headquarters, but I could not find the 208th Regiment. Then I re-read my letter and found out that I had made a mistake and it read Berminda Hundreth. Anyways, I was sorry I did not get to see my father, but it kept me from drilling that day. We did not drill the next day, either, as things got hot again and we had the Poplar Grove fight, and here is where poor James Hoover got his arm shot off with a case shot.
A little after this, we had our second skirmish at the Yellow House, where they attacked us but got more than they bargained for as they retreated and did not return again. We did picket duty when we lay here and a few of us restless fellows made up a raiding party and went outside the lines to see whether we could find some fruit. There were about ten of us and we were in a woods back of the picket line, and in about a half a mile we came to a cornfield. Then we came to a lane that led to a house. There were some peach trees along the lane, but the peaches were not ripe enough to eat yet. So we started for the house; before we got there a shot was fired at us but, luckily, no one was hit. This shot was from a rebel stationed nearby and we got scared and rode away. There was a great commotion over in the other woods at their reserve post and we could have easily got some plunder, as there were teams roaming everywhere, but everybody was scared stiff and ran away pretty fast and one poor fellow jumped over a bank and wringed his foot so bad that he couldn’t make it anymore. I and a man carried him back in the woods a piece and then went for help to bring him back to camp. We came pretty near being court martialed for leaving our reserve post. Had it been captured, we would have been classed as deserters and, if caught, we would have been disgraced for life or perhaps shot. We were on the picket line just before the Poplar Grove fight and that evening you ought to have seen the gambling. If you was a looking for a fight, you had one if you tried to stop the card playing. They rather fight than gamble, but we left them alone as they had to do something to while away the hours. Here I helped a man from Maine to cut down a big bottom poplar to get a raccoon, but when we had worked a long time and the tree got down and [we] went for our coon, we found it was a possum.
Now I resume that the Poplar Grove fight was the 30th of September 1864, and we were in the advance when we got there and there was an open field and a considerable way up to the rebel works, which was about 500 yards away
The same regiment went up the road to command the front. We circulated and another regiment marched to the left of us and formed a line, but the rebs kept breaking around until the tension got too great and we then started forward. General Gruffelen tried to stop them but to no avail. There was no more danger in going in and taking the works than standing there to be shot down. Anyway, we went up and took three guards and all the line to the left of us. But there was a place to the right we tried to take by going in with men and horses, but they shot most of our horses and we failed to take it. Another regiment that was to help us came just as soon as they could and we rallied and drove the rebs out. We then foraged and I found knapsacks and I retrieved a new blouse, a pair of pants, and a cashmere shirt. Picked up a buckskin portfolio containing papers, envelopes, and stamps. I really got a good outfit and I would have returned it, but the owner was unknown. We were relieved and sent back about six o’clock. But before we got our supper, the rebs came with reinforcements and made our whole company a target for their rifle bullets. They drove us back into the woods. I never saw such musketry fire before, but they fired high and did little harm. Leaves and branches fell down on us all the time we were in the woods. I thought next morning that a hailstorm could not have played more havoc than the rebs’ bullets did.
They marched us out in an open field onto a hill in a very exposed position. It was after night and we could not tell much about it till next morning. Then we seen what it was like. Birt Moore was an aide-de-camp and came riding up to Colonel Knowles and said he needed him badly and required his regiment to protect his batteries and to secure about four acres on a plain on top of the hill. Here, I felt like I never felt before. All I could think of was that I did not want to be killed. They placed us about fifty feet apart along the top of the hill. We had our muskets fully primed and pointed to the edge of the hill where the Rebs would have to come over. We were laying on the ground quietly with our hearts in our throats waiting for the Rebs to charge. At last, we heard a rumbling noise and we could tell they were coming nearer and nearer. They never suspected that we were waiting for them. We left them come over the hill about thirty feet – then what a surprise for them. They never fired a volley; only a few stray shots was all. I thought it would shake the earths when all our guns exploded into Rebs coming over the hill. I never saw so many dead soldiers and officers as they lost there.
After it was all over and we had stacked up a big pile of bodies, we were sent back for some rest, which we needed badly. Next day, some of us went back over the field, and seeing the mess, we wondered what had become of our blasted civilization that it permitted man to kill and maim, like was done here on the battlefield. Then I happened onto where their field hospital had been located. Oh, what a sight. The dead and wounded had all been removed, but the arms and legs that had been amputated still lay there on a pile. Some with boots and shoes still on, parts of pants and underwear, and arms with white hands sticking out of tattered shirt sleeves. You got sick looking at all the blood and dirt and could almost feel the pain that was suffered there. It was the most disgusting scene I ever saw and I hoped it would be the last. But then, little did I know what would be in store for me and that I would see it repeated more than I want to remember. We turned away from it disgusted awondering how a human could endure it.