Editor’s Note: This item is part of a collection of letters from New York engineers written while their units were at the Siege of Petersburg. Researcher and Engineer enthusiast Dan O’Connell generously donated all of the items in this collection for use at The Siege of Petersburg Online. These transcriptions are copyrighted by Brett Schulte and may not be used without my express written consent. I do not have images of these letters so some errors could be from transcription or in the original.
Crossing of the Chickahominy
CAMP OF THE 3D BATTALION 50TH N. Y.
ENGINEERS, NEAR CITY POINT, VA.,
June 21st, 1864.
Isaac Butts, Esq., Editor [Rochester Daily] Union, &c.:
DEAR SIR: We have been highly amused, not to say edified or instructed, at the various correspondence of the northern press generally relative to the present campaign of Lieut. Gen. Grant in Virginia. The N. Y. Tribune of the 21st contains a graphic description of the passage of the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, June 13th, which “piles on the glory immensely,” compared with which the passage of the Splugen or the bridge of Lodi sink into insignificance. The Tribune’s correspondent (C. A. P.) informs us after quoting from a rebel account, that Col. Chapman’s brigade did it all, and the 3d Indiana Cavalry, dismounted, did nearly all. He quotes from the rebel paper as follows, dated the 14th of June: “The enemy advanced to the stream at night in masses of cavalry, artillery and infantry, and by virtue of overwhelming numbers, after a severe and well contested action, compelled us to withdraw.” His version of the affair gathered from a Hoosier who was a participant, is that “our men” crossed under a fire described by one of their number as “like swimming and a number on a fallen tree. They then discovered not 50 yards in advance the (terrible) rifle pit. Bayonet charge ordered (without bayonets.) Rifle pits carried. Loss of twenty men out of fifty who charged. Among the wounded are fifty pontooniers. Reinforcements arrive. Enemy completely routed. After three hours of hard fighting the pontoon bridge was laid. Now, with all due deference to Mr. C. A. P. of the Tribune, we would most respectfully beg leave to correct him slightly in regard to our bridge on the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, which is substantially as follows: The third battalion of the 50th N. Y. V. Engineers received orders about 9 o’clock Sunday morning, June 12th, to pack up. In an hour we were on the march down the river from our previous camp on the Cold Harbor road, in the rear of the 5th army corps! At five o’clock we went into park with our train. (We were accompanied by Co. C in the absence of Co. M of our battalion.) Knapsacks unslung, arms stacked and coffee prepared for men.
A rest of three hours. The men had scattered themselves in various groups and positions, gathering a few moment’s rest after a long, weary march. The moon had crept in the meantime, noiselessly, nearly to the zenith, throwing an uncommon brilliancy on the fast approaching columns of men. Our boys had commenced to wonder if this move meant business or a long night march. The full sonorous voice of our Orderly soon dispelled such delusive fancies. Fall in K (pontooners.) None could mistake that voice; no, not even skulkers. The men were formed into two ranks and told off in squads of 10 and 25 men. Each squad in charge of a Sergeant and Corporal. Each squad having its regular duty assigned it so as to prevent confusion in constructing a bridge. The boats were quickly got in line and the men in marching order beside them, the whole under the command and supervision of Capt. James H. McDonald, an old and experienced hand at bridge building under difficulties, (McDonald is Capt. of Co. K, pontooniers, now acting as Major in the absence of Major Ford on sick leave.) The word was given, forward, at half past eight. The long train of boats and bridge materials started toward the river, some said, others “aut le diable.” Subsequent developments proved it to be Long Bridge.
Dismounted cavalry were passed occasionally —by us! no artillery of any account—nor any infantry. Co. D. of our battallion [sic] acted as skirmishers, (we were not armed.) After an hour and a half march, the head of our train reached the river at a place known as Long Bridge, where there has been at some previous time a permanent bridge. The dismounted cavalry joined us here and the first boat was shoved silently into the water. Every one wondered if we were to construct this bridge as easy and with as little resistance as usual. The men commenced filling the boat; the silence was intense not a loud word from those four or five hundred men. The dark overhanging branches of the cypress looked treacherous. The moon tried in vain to pierce the thick foliage with her silvery beams. The men were in the act of shoving off—Crack! Bang! Whiz! Came two balls over our heads instantly followed by fifteen or twenty in rapid succession. “Over, lively, men,” was the order; those unarmed dodged behind trees, under boats and wagons. It was clearly evident that someone was stepping around over there who meant mischief. A few moments delay and the boat reached the opposite shore, or island near the middle of the river. The Rebs retreated keeping up a right smart fire—the balls glancing about quite lively—generally pretty high cutting the leaves overhead. One of our men fell close to me severely wounded, whom I assisted in carrying to the rear—and soon after another wounded badly belonging to the 22nd [New York] Cavalry, from Rochester. I think his name was Skinner—badly wounded in the head. Both parties continued the firing for perhaps 50 minutes, no longer, when the Rebs fled. Our bridge was then commenced and at two o’clock the cavalry were crossing—followed by artillery and infantry—all night and nearly all the next day the living stream crossed. In constructing this bridge we had one man killed (Co K.), the cavalry, three men wounded. I assisted in laying the first and last chess on this famous bridge and saw nary rifle pit. The casualties are as I have stated. These are the facts in the case as anyone can certify in the company—Mr. C. A. P., of the Tribune, to the contrary, notwithstanding.
H[enry]. E. H[ammond?].1
Potential “HEH” Candidates:
HAMMOND, HENRY E.—Age, 30 years. Enlisted, February 22, 1864, at Rochester; mustered in as private, Co. K , February 22, 1864, to serve three years; promoted corporal, July 21, 1864; mustered out with company, June 13,1865, at Fort Barry, Va.; also borne as Henry E. Hammon.
- “H. E. H.” “Crossing of the Chickahominy.” Letter to Isaac Butts, Esq., Editor Union. 21 Jun. 1864. MS. Near City Point, Va. This letter, which looks like it was copied out of a newspaper, appears here courtesy of Dan O’Connell, who has a large collection of letters from Union Engineers during the Civil War. ↩