In this letter1, William Beynon Phillips of the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery writes his future wife Annie Richards from the siege trenches before Petersburg, describes an artillery duel, the strength of the Rebel fortifications, rumors of Rebel desertions, and his confidence of ultimate victory.
Headquarters, Provisional 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery
“Front Trenches” before Petersburg, Virginia
July 20, 1864
Your very kind and most welcome letter dated the 14th came this morning and found me in what I consider “in the blues.” Why? Oh, it was an awful day yesterday. It rained that always disagreeable drizzly rain, no shelter, but there to stand, grin and bear it. The peculiar construction of our present quarters, being made in and not on the ground, the water came trickling in at early dawn, and before evening I had to quit my abode — the inundation was too much. Thinks I, “Mr. Adjutant, why in thunder don’t you swear, leave the service, enjoy bedrooms and couches, go home and plant your wet extremities before a cheering, crackling fire at home.” Yes, that would be very pleasant indeed. But – yes but what? It is not very pleasant to be sent home dishonorably dismissed, so the only vengeance I had was to go into the blues and stay so for a week.
All last night I thought of the disaster that made my cave a mud hole, until I was overcome, went out in the midnight air, and took comfort in looking over the parapet at the “Johnies” – all in the same fix. I meditated on that, thinking of the impartiality of the good God towards both armies. He made it equally disagreeable to all. But I had not thought long when I heard the ominous discharge of a 10 inch mortar in my front. I could see the awful missile all aglow with fire ascending gracefully into the black clouds of midnight, then descending down it comes with its ludicrous “I wish I had you” and strikes our parapet, down through our works, and bursts. Thank God, no one killed, only one poor fellow wounded, no groans, no complaint. The silent stretcher bearers carry him to the rear and again the dead stillness of midnight reigns. Not long, again, there goes four at once, and four more mortar shells, with their fiery tails ascend. Where will they strike? Down they come. Look out! Safe – they have passed over and explode 20 yards in our rear, over our own battery of mortars.
Now for some excitement, the Rebs have commenced [the shelling]. We will see who will have to stop first. Up goes the Connecticut boys and the 2nd Pennsylvania. Fourteen mortars and six 12-pounder Napoleons, are being charged. Out rings the clear voice of the “Chiefs of pieces” – “Ready, Point, Fire” and 20 shell are tearing through the clouds to descend where they are intended to. Our “friends” over the way have woke up the wrong customer and for an hour or so, nothing [is] to be heard but screeching shell and whistling shot. (Excuse that [ink] blot there – an old customer just passed over again.) That is what we call an “Artillery duel.” We invariably get the last shot though. In these duels there are very few casualties owing to the men being able, especially at night, to avoid the shell from the time it is discharged to the time of striking 8, 10, or 15 seconds. Mortars are very harmless provided you are awake and watch them. But then a man can’t do that always. We can sleep comfortably in our works and defy cannon and rifled guns, their elevation being at the highest only 5 3/4 degrees, but those mortars are thrown 45 degrees or about this [picture drawn] and of course descend right into our works. They are of about this shape [picture drawn]. I hate their looks. Confound them. The only comfort a soldier has [is] when he can lay down and forget his troubles, but them blamed things has stopped that also.
The Rebels in our front are very strong and we can’t get them out by storming their works. Two deserters came into our line yesterday and told the General that Longstreet was massing right in front of the 9th Corps and that an assault [was planned] and our works are to be stormed. Since then the men are only allowed to sleep 4 hours, one half of them having to be up and awake during from 8 to 12, the other from 12 to 4, when all are up. A Rebel deserter fooled us about 4 nights ago. He came in and told us that Finnegan’s Brigade of North Carolinians would desert in a body and deliver themselves up to us, if 3 rockets were only thrown up from General Warren’s Headquarters at 9 P.M. that day. They were thrown up, but no Rebels came in. Since then, I put those stories of rascally rebel deserters at a very low figure, but then it is best when they talk of massing troops to prepare for them. I would be safe if on the wrong toes, that’s wiser than to be careless and get licked. We have not been whipped yet and we won’t be whipped. The boys are in high [spirits] hoping that the Rebs will charge on them for they want to pay off for the murder of the 17th June. If they came up in 6 lines of battle, they could never come near our works.
Dearest Annie, so far I have written out doors but for a hour back, they have been shelling so furiously that I had to “hunt my hole” and here I am, a picture to be sure. My boots [are] ankle deep in slough and mud. [I am] sitting on an ammunition box trying to write by sticking my neck out of the hole to get some light and continually ducking it to save it from being “detached.” I wish I was home. No doubt you folks are wondering why the Army of the Potomac don’t move.” If you hear anyone say that, send one of them down here and I’ll conduct him to our picket… (that blue there, well, a shell burst on my abode – nobody hurt but half a dozen scared). I wish they would stop. We have the “Sassy Battery” on our right and it annoys the Rebs so much that they must shell it. If they had good line fire, they would not hurt me, but the Rebs happen to fire promiscuously, and of course a man is as safe in one place as another.
I can’t tell you when I can come home, for I can’t say when the campaign will be over. It may last another 3 months. The Army of the Potomac consider this the hardest campaign of the war. All the other campaigns lasted only a few weeks. But this, we have not been from under fire since the 3rd of May – now nearly August – and about a week ago we received orders to commence the siege. And in front of Burnsides and Warrens Corps, seiging is a dull business and soldiers hate it, for it has all the dangers of a battle without the excitement.
I do verily believe that I would enjoy a week or two up in Hyde Park. What a blessing it would be, to be sure, to go around and about, to enjoy your society and caresses, without having to be disturbed by Rebel shot & shell, to feel certain when I lay down to rest that I am safe from harm as far as lead and iron is concerned. How I would enjoy it, to ramble over the fields and woods in peace and quiet, conscious of the fact that there are to be no more assaults to repel, no charges to be made, no more digging of holes in the ground to keep the body from harm, no rebellion, no war, [last page missing].
[Yours always, — William B. Phillips]
- Phillips, William B. Letter to Annie Richards. 20 July 1864. The Civil War Letters of William Beynon Phillips, 1864. Letter used with the written permission of Greg Taylor. All rights reserved. No reproduction of this letter may occur without the express written consent of Greg Taylor. ↩