Editor’s Note: The Soldier Studies web site (http://www.soldierstudies.org) collects and publishes letters written during the Civil War. Owner/editor Chris Wehner was kind enough to grant me written permission to publish a selection of letters from his site which focus on the Siege of Petersburg. Look for letters to appear here during the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Petersburg and beyond. These letters may not be reused without the express written consent of Chris Wehner. All rights reserved.
DEAR FATHER, — We left Alexandria last Sunday [August 14, 1864] and came to City Point without stopping, arriving here at five P. M. Monday [August 15, 1864] ; went up the Appomattox and landed our cattle in the evening. Lay there all night, and returned to this place Tuesday morning [August 16, 1864]; have been here ever since. There are a great many boats waiting here now. Last Saturday night [August 13, 1864] forty-six steamers loaded with troops went up the river to Deep Bottom, landed the men, and returned on Sunday [August 14, 1864]. We are here -waiting, I suppose, to go after those men, should it be necessary.1
I think that there has been some severe fighting up there, for five steamers, loaded with wounded, passed down by here yesterday [August 17, 1864, probably with wounded from the Battle of Fussell’s Mill the day before], and several the day before ; and all night before last and yesterday we could hear the deep booming of very heavy guns up the river, probably from the monitors and gunboats. Last evening we had a most terrible thunder storm, with violent gusts of wind, rain, and the most incessant thunder and lightning of the season. It was, as it were, a contest of Heaven’s artillery against man’s comparatively feeble powers. During the evening it was calm and still, raining a little at intervals : so quiet was it that I thought man had become awed and cowed to silence by the terrible powers of Heaven; but no, at about midnight we were awakened from a sound sleep by a most terrific cannonading in the direction of Petersburg. We turned out and went on deck, not that the sound of heavy guns is a strange one by any means, but because this was the heaviest firing that I have heard from that direction yet ; it was a continual boom, boom, boom, and a great many guns all going off together made the uproar continuous and terrible. We could distinguish our guns from the enemy’s very distinctly, as ours were pointed away from us, while theirs were pointed toward us. Between two and three o’clock the firing slackened, and this morning everything is most calm and beautiful. We conjecture that a midnight attack was made from one side or the other, and that the engagement was general, but this is merely conjecture.
After breakfast. — The ball has opened again, and the noisy voices of the loud-mouthed cannon can be heard up the river and in front of Petersburg. The day is going to be intensely hot, the thermometer being at ninety-eight now (time half past six A. M.), and I reckon the poor artillerists must suffer almost as much from the heat as from the enemy’s shot and shell.
We lay within a few rods of where the great explosion took place ; one of the most terrible explosions that ever happened, I suppose.2 You, of course, have read in the papers all about it. I wish I could describe how it looks even now ; the hundreds of tons of unexploded shell, shot, and ammunition of all kinds, that have been picked up since the accident ; and the thousands of boxes, and barrels, etc., filled with every conceivable article, belonging to a great military depot; the torn, twisted, and broken muskets, rifles, pistols, and heaps of all kind of subsistence stores. I saw yesterday, when we made a thorough exploration of the ruins, in one pile more than twenty tons of soap, candles, and flour which the intense heat of the sun had melted into one immense mass of dough. The buildings on the bluff are blown to atoms, so is a large part of the government store-houses, and the whole of the quartermaster’s buildings. The trees on the bluff were nearly stripped of their foliage and branches by the storm of iron and leaden hail ; and suspended from many of the limbs were the intestines and mangled limbs of human beings, who a few seconds before had been breathing, living men, strong in their health and pride ; but this availed them nothing at such a time. The sight after the explosion must have been heart-rending in the extreme.
I am acquainted with one of the quartermaster’s clerks. He sat near a window on the opposite side of the building from the water, when it happened ; he says he remembers nothing from the time that he first heard the noise until he picked himself up amidst a pile of rubbish on the bluff, more than 200 feet from where he was writing. He was not injured seriously, but his dog, which lay under his chair, was blown to atoms, as was the whole building ; not a sign of a building remaining except a mass of broken splinters. The wharf for 150 feet was entirely blown away, not a plank nor a pile remaining. The barges have gone, no one knows where. Fifty-nine persons are known to have been killed, and undoubtedly there are many more that are unknown. Frank and I picked up something more than a hundred pounds of bullets in less than an hour yesterday ; I also took a lot of pieces of broken shells, gun locks, broken baronets, etc., which I shall improve the earliest opportunity of sending home.
We also found some whole percussion shells, but after debating the question, concluded we would leave them overboard, rather than run the risk of being ourselves blown up by them. One of the guards on the wharf said that five barrels of bullets were swept up on what remains of the wharf, so you can judge whether they fell thick or not. And here, after a week has elapsed, and they have picked up everything they considered valuable, and curiosity hunters have helped themselves to all they wanted, we picked up over 100 pounds of bullets, and might have loaded our boat with pieces of shell, etc. I wanted some of the broken and twisted guns, but they would not let me have them. While we were on the wharf yesterday the steamer Greyhound came in and landed Generals Meade and Butler ; I stood within three feet of them when they landed. Meade I never saw before. I believe I told you that I had seen General Grant.
I am pretty well, but am troubled somewhat with the old complaint again.
Your affectionate son, EUGENE.3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Freeman, a sailor on a Union army transport in the James River, was involved in the massive operation which took Hancock’s Union Second Corps initially away from the fighting to disguise where they were going, and then turned around and unloaded their human cargo at Deep Bottom north of Bermuda Hundred. During the Second Deep Bottom Campaign, the Second Corps in conjunction with the Tenth Corps and Union cavalry spent the next week demonstrating forcefully against the Confederates along New Market Heights. The largest fighting occurred on August 16, 1864 at Fussell’s Mill. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Freeman is here referring to the August 9, 1864 explosion at City Point, caused by a Confederate saboteur. ↩
- Freeman, Eugene H. “City Point.” Letter to “Father” 18 Aug. 1864. MS. City Point, Va. This letter appears here due to the express written consent of Chris Wehner, owner of SoldierStudies.org and may not be used without his permission. All rights reserved. ↩