Editor’s Note: John Vautier of the 88th Pennsylvania wrote a regimental history of his regiment, History of the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War for the Union, 1861-1865, which was published in 1894. Tucked at the back of the book in Chapter 29, almost as an afterthought, were excerpts from the letters of Captain Charles “Charlie” McKnight. The two excerpts dealing with the Siege of Petersburg have been reproduced here. These excerpts are in the public domain and may be freely used elsewhere. All I ask if you copy and paste my transcriptions is that you credit this web site and link back here.
CAMP NEAR WELDON R. R., September 4, 1864.
. . . On the 18th of August  we marched to this place, called Yellow Tavern. The 1st Division [of Fifth Corps] was destroying the railroad, and we deployed on the right of the road, the 2d Division on our left, and advanced into the woods in line of battle by battalions in mass. After going about half a mile the 2d Division became engaged, and the brigade on our left came back, the men saying that they had run into a trap and were surrounded. The woods were so dense that a person could not see more than twenty yards, and everything was mixed up. For my part, I was disgusted with the way things were; there were about 2000 men, with nobody to direct them, moving about in the woods, expecting an attack every minute, the bullets even then flying around us; but at last Crawford sent for our regiment to support the pickets on the right. So after running around in the wet and mud two hours, we were put on the skirmish line, remaining there until the morning of the 19th.
Upon rejoining our brigade we found the men building breastworks, and taking our place in line, we took a hand at the same work; but some one found that they were not in the right place, so we moved and fooled around for two hours, and got to work again, but before they were finished the rebels charged our left and right, gobbling our thin line on the right, and, bursting through, came on yelling like demons, while at the same time they charged our left, carrying the works and forcing all the 1st Brigade down on our line. There was no firing on our regimental front just then, but the enemy swooped down the works to our right and left, capturing lots of the men and placing us in a most uncomfortable and bewildering position. A line forming in our rear gave us a volley, causing us to jump on the other side of our breastworks; but the rebs were as much perplexed as we were, some of them coming into our line, thinking they were going to their rear. Our men and theirs were so mixed up in the woods that we dare not fire, and I suppose the rebs did not fire for the same reason; but our battery let fly a dose of shot and shell right into us, thinking there were none but Johnnies in the woods. Oh, it was a pretty kettle of fish; but Colonel [Charles] Wheelock [of the 97th New York], our brigadier, called to fix bayonets and follow him. He said as soon as he gave the word to fire and charge, and we went out on the double-quick, our cannon raking our line, but we could not stop. When we reached the opening a Union line of battle was ready to fire on us, but we rushed out and shook “Old Glory”at them, and the next minute we were safe again. We rejoined our brigade and soon charged into the woods, recapturing all our works and resting there all night. This happened on Friday, August 19, and our regimental commander, Captain [Jacob] Houder, was killed, four wounded, and about twenty-five missing.
On Sunday, the 21st [of August 1864], the rebs charged our works, but were repulsed with awful slaughter. Taking it all in all, I think the Dixieites will not own this railroad very soon; that Grant has a mortgage on it which must be satisfied before he will surrender it. Excuse my writing; it is tiresome to write on a board, holding it on my knee.
Your brother in Christ,
CHARLIE McKNIGHT. 1
- Vautier, John D. History of the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War for the Union, 1861-1865. Philadelphia: Printed by J.B. Lippincott, 1894, pp. 227-228. ↩