The Siege of Petersburg after the Capture of the Weldon Railroad1
BREVET LIEUT.-COLONEL WILLIAM R. DRIVER, U. S. V.
Read before the Society May 21, 1883
THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG AFTER THE CAPTURE OF THE WELDON RAILROAD
General Humphreys’ admirable account of the campaigns of 1864 and 1865 has left nothing to be said of the period between the capture of the Weldon Railroad in August and the opening of the spring campaign on the 25th of March, 1865. His knowledge of events and their causes, gained as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Potomac and afterwards as the commander of the Second Army Corps, and his ready access to the records of the War Department give to his story of the campaign an authority that only extreme presumption can question. In this article I can only state my personal recollections of the period of which I speak.
Before the publication of the work of General Humphreys I know of very little that has been written upon that part of the campaign. General Badeau gives a detailed account of the Peebles’ Farm and the Boydton Road affairs, to which Generals Grant and Meade in their reports devote but little space, and but little to the time not included in those movements. The affair at Reams’ Station determined that the effect of occupation of a position across the Weldon Railroad would be but the addition of a day’s time to that previously required for the transportation of such supplies as the enemy had been accustomed to receive by that route. This loss of time, though important to an army which had no reserve supplies, had no apparent immediate effect on the operations.
After the affair at Reams’ Station the troops engaged there were returned to the lines between the Jerusalem Plank Road and the Appomattox.(1)
(1) Though they had experienced defeat, the effect upon the majority of those engaged there was but temporary, and a day or two of rest restored them to their usual condition. Indeed, I think that, had they been called on the next day, they could have been relied on to do much better work than was done at Reams’ Station.
For more than a month the ordinary routine of the siege was uninterrupted by any movement beyond the intrenched lines. Here the picket firing continued, varying on different parts of the line, and artillery fire would break out daily for an hour or two with intervals of quiet, and the nights were made available for the repair of, or addition to, works and the increase of obstacles against attack.
In this interval was inaugurated the series of shotted salutes, first ordered to celebrate General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and repeated whenever news was received of a success gained by Sherman in the West or Sheridan in the Valley. This grim method of announcing to the enemy our satisfaction at the successes of our armies elsewhere was noisy enough and expensive enough, without causing any serious damage on either side. It soon became merely a part of the routine, and I doubt if many on either side realized the festive character of the performance after the first salute, which was fired at near midnight and was distinguished from the ordinary daily artillery fire by the band accompaniments.(1)
After the operations had settled into the routine of a siege the men were able to make themselves fairly comfortable. The weather, though warm, was dry and dusty. Occasional change of position from the lines to a short distance in the rear, gave them slight variety, although they were seldom encamped out of the range of musketry fire. There were casualties every day, but not in great
(1) I don’t know the theory upon which this shotted salute business was based, but, if any idea of exciting enthusiasm thereby and thus increasing the energy of the men was entertained, I doubt if the result justified the attempt. Since an attempt to create enthusiasm by artificial means was made by General McClellan on the peninsula after the battle of Gainesville and before those of Savage’s Station and the Peach Orchard, the Army of the Potomac was liable to distrust efforts of that character and to wait for the later returns.
numbers. The supplies were regular and of good quality and quantity.(1)
The monotony of this siege routine was broken on the 28th of September by the preparations for another movement. A portion of the troops occupying the intrenchments were withdrawn and their places filled by spreading out those remaining, thus requiring each organization to cover about double the extent of line which it had previously.
On the 29th of September the troops thus set free from the lines were moved out from the left and rear against the enemy’s right at Peebles’ Farm. The position was captured, intrenched and connected with the lines previously held, and another step towards the enemy’s lines of supply was taken.
This movement from the left was meant to take advantage of any reduction of the opposing force on that flank of the enemy which might have been made for the purpose of opposing an advance of the Army of the James on the other extremity of the line north of the James River, which resulted in the capture of Fort Harrison and an extension of our lines in that direction.
It seems to have been hoped that one or both of these movements might have a more important result than merely an extension of our lines and the capture of a work or two. General Badeau speaks of a hope that General Butler’s troops might break through the enemy’s line and perhaps reach Richmond, and also quotes despatches from General Grant indicating that he considered it not improbable that General Meade might find his way into Petersburg. He also quotes a despatch to the President to the effect that the attacks were to prevent the sending of reinforcements to Early in the Valley. Yet I doubt if any result other than those actually reached, that is an extension on both flanks, was really ex-
(1) The easy and regular communication with City Point afforded by the Military Railroad which was put into operation in the latter part of August had its natural effect.
pected. The time had not then arrived when the shell could be broken. The experience of four months of struggle between the two armies proved that any gain of ground must be step by step, and that the resources of General Lee were still sufficient to enable him to prevent an advance to the front.
The intrenchment on the ground thus gained, and its safety against the attempts of the enemy to regain it having been secured, the troops again settled down into the former routine.
From the Appomattox to the Jerusalem Road the lines were close to each other, and the firing more frequent than on the left of that road where they were more widely separated. On the old line the artillery fire was heaviest in the early morning and at about dark in the evening. These duels were brilliant affairs. In the darkness the fuses of mortar shells were visible throughout their entire flight, and shells from the guns were followed by a trail of fire, comet-like, after every rebound. When in full play the air was full of these falling stars, and habit soon made them enjoyable after experience had shown that the noisy exhibition caused but little damage. By this time the works were so well provided with bombproofs that the men were protected from fire and casualties were comparatively infrequent.
It seems almost unaccountable that greater damage was not done to some of the houses within range of the enemy’s fire and without protection of works. In a residence of more than a month at the Friend house, which was in rear of Fort McGilvery and on the right of the line near the river, situated on a bluff, in range and full view of a part of the enemy’s line on both sides of the river, and made prominent by a signal station in constant use on its roof, with a 13-inch mortar in position behind it, the house was not struck once, though the twice daily artillery fire sent missiles all round it. And at the Avery house, a residence of about the same length of time resulted in the same experience, although this house was
less prominent. In October the enemy placed in barbette an 8-inch columbiad directly opposite this house under the cover of darkness, but kept it there only three days, during which it was fired but once or twice. The first shell thrown from it fell directly in the door-yard in front of the house and by a piece of good fortune failed to explode.(1)
On the 26th of October the orders from headquarters indicated another movement. The force in the works was reduced to a smaller number than in the previous movement. From the river to Fort Howard, a mile west of the Jerusalem Road, the lines were held by a single division.
On the 27th the movement commenced, and the greater part of the army was pushed out to the Boydton Plank and the Southside Railroad. The difficult country and the lack of knowledge concerning it appear to have been the cause of the failure of the movement. There seems to have been no expectation of any other immediate result than to gain possession of the roads by which the enemy supplied his army, although General Grant’s statement in his report that after this movement “the operations were confined to the defence and extension of our lines and to offensive movements for crippling the enemy’s line of communication and to prevent his detaching any considerable force to send South” implies that this, like the previous operation, had a broader aim.
The commanders in the lines before the city were instructed to observe and take advantage of any reduction of the force in their front that might afford an opportunity to break through; and to ascertain whether or not this was practicable attempts were made at different points to carry the lines. These were made near night in one or two places by small detachments who succeeded in making lodgments in the enemy’s
(1) From the roof of this house an excellent view of the enemy’s line for a long distance was obtained, and, whenever fire was opened by the artillery, the position was generally occupied by some with leisure and interest to observe the effects.
works, but only temporarily, for in each case it was found that he could immediately gather force enough to drive out the assailants, and the only results were the capture of a few prisoners. In these attempts the troops engaged did their work handsomely, and, when the information they sought was obtained, returned to their positions.
On the 28th the troops returned and again resumed their places in the works. In doing this the enemy’s enterprise was shown by a successful attempt to take a few prisoners.
A division was to take its place in the lines near Fort Howard and to relieve part of the picket line in its front late at night. The enemy gathered a number of men wearing the blue overcoats of our troops and, commencing at a point in a ravine concealed from our line, he regularly relieved the pickets who were expecting proper relief, causing those so relieved to fall in in the ordinary manner in rear of the relieving force. He thus succeeded in gathering up a hundred or two of our men before the true nature of the operation was discovered. Many of these men were secured as prisoners, being led into the enemy’s line, but discovery caused the opening of a heavy artillery fire, and finally the stripped line was occupied by those for whom the duty was intended.
The day of the national election was now at hand and the troops of those states which had made provision for receiving the vote of those of its citizens who were enlisted in the national armies were visited by the accredited agents to furnish the ballots and attend to their collection.
It was thought that the day of the election might be chosen by the enemy for a demonstration against some part of the line, and especial preparations were made to receive hirn if such had been his intention. But the day passed quietly. At one point of the line a truce was agreed upon for the burial of some of the dead who had lain between the lines since the operations in which the army was engaged on the left.
The movement of October 27 closed the season of active
operations, and for the remainder of the winter the troops made themselves as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances. They were, however, required to make occasional changes of position, and thereby prevented from entertaining any ideas of permanent occupation or belief that the army was in winter quarters. Many huts were built with great care only to be abandoned after short occupancy.
Thanksgiving day of 1864 was celebrated throughout the army by the application to that purpose of the contents of an enormous number of boxes sent by the people of the North to their friends at the front.
Early in December General Warren led an expedition down the Weldon Road to destroy it as far as possible. This was done without serious opposition by the enemy. During his absence a division of infantry with a brigade of cavalry was sent across Hatcher’s Run to guard against any attempt by the enemy to oppose his return. General Miles, who commanded this expedition, crossed the run and observed the roads beyond without interference until he was about withdrawing to return to the lines, when a force under General Mahone attacked him, but was held in check until the withdrawal was completed.
On the 5th of February the line was extended to Hatcher’s Run and intrenched. In this operation some severe fighting was done by the Fifth Corps and part of the Second, the loss falling chiefly on the Fifth. General McAllister’s Brigade of Mott’s Division and a brigade of the Second Division being the troops chiefly engaged of the Second Corps.
During the winter and previous to the extension to Hatcher’s Run occasional rumors of attack from the rear caused troops to be disposed across the road leading thither to meet such attacks, but none were made.
After active operations ceased in November cases of desertion received the attention of courts-martial, and sentences of death caused frequent executions. In rear of Fort Fisher a
gallows remained for the greater part of the winter, and nearly every week some unfortunate suffered death either by hanging or shooting.
The approach of spring brought signs of the new campaign which all believed would decide the great contest. In the midst of the preparations for this St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated with great enthusiasm by the entire army. Horse races of an elaborate description were planned and carried out with success, and were attended by all whose positions enabled them.
The visit of the President and Secretary of War was the occasion of reviews and parades of all the troops not actually in the trenches, and gave the opportunity to shake off much of the rust which the winter’s inactivity had allowed to collect, and caused the troops to set themselves up anew by the practice of the forms and ceremonies which the sterner business of the campaigns had so long displaced.
These reviews were still in progress when the capture of Fort Steadman by General Gordon gave the signal for the opening of the final campaign. Orders had been issued for a review on that day, March 25, but with the daylight came the sound of heavy firing from the line nearest the city and, instead of moving out for parade, the troops were led directly to the front against the intrenched picket line of the enemy.
During the latter part of the winter desertions from the enemy were frequent, every day bringing a greater or less number of men, who had tired of service where scanty rations and clothing were the rule, and with whom the terms offered by our government to deserters outweighed the claims of patriotism. The stories of privation told by these men fed the belief, which was almost a certainty in the minds of the soldiers on our side, that the end must be near.
To give the details of these nearly seven months, if it were possible, would require more time and labor than the ordinary man could give. The positions in the lines of the vari-
ous bodies of troops were freq[u]ently changed, and the numerous small affairs of pickets were unrecorded. The larger operations are fully described by Generals Badeau and Humphreys, with authority which I have not heard questioned. I cannot hope to have added anything to the knowledge of the siege, and regret that the task of filling the gap in the Society’s Records had not fallen to some one competent to complete it acceptably.
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 5 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS
- Driver, William R. “The Siege of Petersburg after the Capture of the Weldon Railroad.” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pp. 307-317 ↩