Editor’s Note: The Soldier Studies web site (http://www.soldierstudies.org) collects and published 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.
Head Quarters 39th Ills. Vol. Infty
Dear Uncle and Aunt
I rec’d your last letter written some weeks ago while in camp on the North Side of the James on our old camp near Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] farm But before I was ready to answer it we were ordered to break up camp and enter upon the campaign which has terminated so gloriously for our Cause.
Since then all letter writing has been dispensed with. We are at last in Richmond! resting after our hard chase after Lee and his army; and while resting I thought it a good time to take up my pen and answer your kind letter now lying before me.
Our career since starting out from camp has been a hard one full of excitement and a glorious one too. I have passed through it unharmed and am in good health for all of which I am truly thankful to the “Giver of all Good”.
When we crossed the James, which was on the night of the 27th of March, we marched to the defenses on Grant’s left which we occupied while the 2nd and 5th corps with Sheridan’s Caverly [sic, Cavalry] moved farther to the left to initiate the long talked of movement which was to wrench the strongholds of Petersburg and Richmond from the grasp of the enemy.
The 6th and 9th corps broke the enemy’s line on the morning of the 2nd inst. when we were called upon to hasten to the assistance of the 6th corps, the principal part of which after breaking through the works had swung to the right toward Petersburg. Our Division, the 1st commanded by R. S. Foster of Ind. went through the line on the double quick & passed the 6th Corps, charged two of the enemy’s redoubts capturing them and turning the guns upon the flying foe. We advanced up to within a short distance of a strong work called Fort Gregg where the enemy made a bold stand. This was the key to all the forts about Petersburg and its capture necessitated the fall of the city as well as of Richmond. It commanded five other forts. It was built upon a high prominence; the country about it open – affording no covering. It was an inclosed [sic, enclosed] fort. Surrounding it is a ditch 10 or 12 ft deep & the same in width. It was garrisoned with nearly five hundred picked men who swore to hold the fort against all odds or die in the attempt. Gen. Lee visited the fort about two hours prior to our arrival and exhorted them to hold it at all hazzards [sic, hazards] for the salvation of Petersburg and the safety of Richmond depended upon the fate of that fort; and nobly did they endeavor to carry out his instructions but it was all in vain.
They were not counting on meeting with western men in the coming conflict. Our brigade, composed of the 39th Ills, the 62nd and 67th Ohio & 199th Pa. Vols, was soon in position in line of battle ready to try its mettle. At the command “Forward” away we went for the fort. As soon as we started the enemy arose up from behind their parapets where they had been compelled to keep down by our Sharpshooters, and poured into our ranks a destructive fire of musketry and grape which mowed down our men most unmercifully. But we faltered not – on we went – we reached the ditch – the 39th reaching it first and first in placing her colors on the fort – and by the way our color is to be sent to Washington to have an eagle, cast for the purpose, placed on it by our corps commander Gen. Gibbon in honor of the event.
Into the ditch we plunged – it was there we encountered a difficulty unforeseen when we started. The steepness and slippery nature of the sides of the fort for a time overcame all our efforts to scale them. The excitement which now prevailed beggars description – the men were nearly frantic in their attempts to gain the top of the work – the enemy continued to fire grape and minnie balls at all who attempted to come to our assistance. It was only by digging footholds with bayonets and swords that we were enabled to work our way up inch by inch – fighting all the time. We finally gained the top of the parapet; and now the fighting was hand to hand and continued for 24 minutes by the watch.
It was the first time since entering the service that I ever thought it necessary to use my revolver in battle; this time I made good use of it as I stood near our colors and fought the enemy on the parapet. I was one of the first officers to enter the fort and was not even touched by the missles [sic, missiles] flying on all sides of me. I knew I was in the hands of Him who closed the lion’s mouth and preserved the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace.
When we rushed over the top the sight was truly terrific – dead men and the dying lay strewn all about; and it was with the greatest difficulty that we could prevent our infuriated soldiers from shooting down all who survived of the stubborn foe. Not a rebel escaped. Those not killed were captured.
Immediately after the capture of Fort Gregg, two others close by were evacuated.
Our Brigade & Division gained quite a reputation in this brilliant affair. It was witnessed by thousands of spectators in both armies who crowded the surrounding hills and house tops – and the 39th Ills stands No. 1 in the brigade. Out of 150 men, the number I took in of my regiment, the balance being on picket at the time, 16 were killed outright about the fort and 45 wounded – six of the latter I understand have since died. They lay buried where they fell.
It hath appeared good in the eyes of the commanding General to reward your friend & nephew, the writer, for what they were kind enough to denominate “gallantry at the battle of Fort Gregg” At least my brigade commander informed me soon after the affair was over that my name had been sent on to Washington with recommendation for Brevet Major and also to the Governor of Ills. for the regular commission. It is thus that the soldier loves to receive his rewards on the field of duty. Whether I receive further promotion or not, now that the war is virtually ended, I feel that I have only performed my duty, and am now willing to lay aside my armor & return to my friends at home & engage once more in the peaceful avocations of life, thankful to Almighty God for the rich rewards which he has constantly bestowed upon me as I have journeyed on in my rough & sometimes trying way.
Of our marches and fighting from Petersburg to Appomattox Court House, where we compelled Gen. Lee and his army to surrender it would run out my letter to too great length to give you a full account. Suffice it to say our Corps, the 24th, followed the road along the South Side RR, marching day and night, skirmishing with the enemy wherever he would make a stand.
It was by the rapid marching, some days not stopping for meals or sleep, that we succeeded in getting around in Lee’s front & heading him off – this was at Appomattox Court House about 22 miles from Lynchburg. Our Division was in the lead of all the infantry when we arrived at that place, and our Brigade in the advance of the Division, and the 39th Ills. in the advance of the Brigade. We did not reach the scene of conflict five minutes too soon. Lee’s advance was steadily pushing Sheridan’s caverly [sic, cavalry] back, which he was determined to do before we could get up. Gen. Sheridan sent word back to us for instant assistance. We arrived on the ground at the double quick and immediately flew into line of battle, six companies of my regiment being sent out as skirmishers. A narrow strip of woods concealed us from the advancing rebels. As soon as we formed we emerged from the woods with a regular western yell, pouring a volley into the astonished rebels.
At our first fire they halted and seemed to be dumbfounded; and as they saw the long line of blue coats continuing to emerge from the woods they began to falter, and even to break, and as we continued to advance away they went in all directions over the hills and down the gullies. I never saw such a general “skedaddle” since I entered the service. It was our sudden appearance directly across their only avenue of escape, and that right in their immediate front, that told them their doom was sealed.
We had not advanced quite a quarter of a mile after the flying rabble [illegible] announcement ran along our line like wildfire “Lee has surrendered!”
It is useless for me to attempt to give a description of the scene which followed the tidings. The tears rushed to my eyes. My heart was too full for utterance. It was to accomplish this very result that I had left home and friends, some of them forever hid from mortal sight, and periled my life time and time again. There I stood at the head of my regiment on the very field where the Army of Northern Virginia, made up of the flower of the South and led by their pet General Robert E Lee was compelled to surrender by our brave boys. In this surrender we saw the end of the wicked rebellion and we thanked God for it.
I saw Gen. Lee when he took his leave of Gen. Grant after the papers were all signed. I watched the countenance of our gallant chieftain as he came away and I shall never forget it. It was beaming with a smile of satisfaction; and as he raised his hat when passing one of our sentinels who presented the proper salute I knew it was done as a mark of homage to the noble boys who had so gloriously accomplished this great work.
We left Appomattox C.H. on the 16th inst. for this place and it was on the march that we were shocked – yea horrified with the tiddings [sic, tidings] of the death of our dear President, killed by the cowardly hand of an assassin! Vengeance is Mine I will repay saith the Lord! Amen! So let it be.
I see I must reserve any description of Richmond as it now appears until next time, as I have doubtless wearied your patience already. With love to all I close As ever yours affectionately Homer A. Plimpton1
- Plimpton, Homer A. “Head Quarters 39th Ills. Vol. Infty.” Letter to “Uncle and Aunt” 27 Apr. 1865. MS. Head Quarters 39th Ills. Vol. Infty., Petersburg, Virginia. 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. ↩