By ALDACE F. WALKER.
[Read December 11, 1890.]
Editor’s Note: A significant portion of this essay prior to the Petersburg Campaign is not reproduced here at Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online. Only that portion specifically pertaining to the subject matter of this web site is included. For the entire article, please see Google Books.
In December, 1864, the Sixth Corps returned to the Army of the Potomac and was assigned a position at the extreme left of the line on the southwest front of Petersburg. The Vermont Brigade occupied works previously constructed by troops which it relieved, facing northerly, near the farthest point at that time held by our army in that direction. Picket duty and an occasional skirmish occupied the days and nights until the latter part of March, when active work was resumed.
At daybreak on April 2, 1865, an event occurred which is well worthy a careful description. The battle of Five Forks had just been fought and won. The time had arrived when it was considered necessary to break through the intrenched line of the enemy. General Wright was sure he could do it, and told General Meade that whenever he got the word he would “make the fur fly.” The enemy’s line was closely studied. General L. A. Grant discovered an opening in the Rebel intrenchments, where there was a little ravine which their abatis did not cross. This was opposite the farthest point to the west then held by our army. He describes what took place as follows : — “Knowing that a vulnerable point of attack was sought for, I called General Getty’s attention to this place, and he in turn called the attention of Generals Wright and Meade. All came down, and we went out together to examine it as well as could be done at a distance. It was decided to make this the point of attack, and the old Vermont Brigade was selected to form the entering wedge. Orders were given the night previous for my brigade to move out at twelve o’clock, and to take the
position that I might select as most favorable for the purpose, and for the other troops to follow.”
The plan thus outlined was closely followed. While the troops were being massed for the assault a general bombardment was in progress all along the line, which continued throughout the night. The Vermont Brigade moved out, under strict orders to hug the ground and observe the utmost silence, and lay down three hundred yards from the enemy’s picket-line. The other brigades of the division took position on its right. The other divisions of the corps were in echelon on either side of Getty. Each brigade was massed in columns by battalion. Axemen were in front to cut away the abatis. General Getty’s official report says that Grant’s Vermont Brigade “was made the directing column.” It was ordered that, upon the firing of a certain gun from Fort Fisher, the whole Sixth Army Corps should rise and charge together, silently and without firing a musket. For three hours after the preparations were complete the Sixth Corps waited for the signal-gun. The night was very dark and cold. The ground was damp, and the men were almost benumbed as they lay upon it, without fire or light. Cannon-shot were frequently exchanged, and the projectiles whizzed over the heads of the troops in both directions. By some unlucky chance a picket fire was opened, to which the Rebels replied sharply, and many casualties occurred in the prostrate ranks of the corps. General L. A. Grant was wounded in the head, and Colonel Tracy again took command of the brigade. Colonel James M. Warner of the Eleventh Vermont, had for some months commanded the Third Brigade of Getty’s division. The cannonading was so heavy that the signal-gun, when fired, was not recognized. Colonel Tracy soon learned that the time had come and gave the order to advance. The troops rose to their feet and the massed columns moved out silently into the night. The entire corps took up the movement as directed. The
blunders of the Mine were not repeated. Twelve thousand men were formed into a living wedge to penetrate the strongest line of works ever constructed in America. Suddenly the enemy’s pickets heard the tramp of the approaching army, opened a scattering fire and fled to the works behind them. Silence was no longer required and a mighty cheer arose, while the Sixth Corps rapidly pressed forward on its charge. The Rebel works were almost instantly manned ; the enemy had evidently also been under arms through the night. Musketry and artillery swept the field but the column moved on. There was disorganization and confusion as the lines of abatis were pulled aside, but the men were on their mettle; dashing into the ditch they climbed the parapet, and poured, a resistless torrent, across the enemy’s defences as the day began to dawn. There is no dispute that the first man to mount the parapet was Captain C. J. Gould of the Fifth Vermont, who was bayoneted in the face and back as he jumped within the fort. The first mounted officer to cross the works was undoubtedly Colonel Warner of the Eleventh Vermont, who led the charge of the Third Brigade. The scene, as it appeared to a non-combatant, was described by Surgeon S. J. Allen of the Fourth Vermont, medical director of the division, who was standing on the parapet of Fort Welch in rear of the attacking column, anxiously peering into the night. He could hear the muffled tramp and rustle of the moving host but could discern nothing. He saw the flashes of the first volley, heard the answering shout from ten thousand throats, and then he saw, stretching across the front for half a mile, a line of flashing fire, crackling, blazing and sparkling in the darkness, more vividly lighted up by the heavier flashes of artillery; shells with their fiery trails sped through the gloom in every direction. While he was intently watching that line of deadly fire, suddenly in the middle of it there appeared a tiny black spot, a narrow gap, which spread and widened, moment by
moment, to the right and left; and then he knew that the line was pierced and our men had carried the defences of the enemy.
It is claimed by historians on the other side that this feat was rendered easy by reason of the depletion of the troops upon the Rebel line. This hardly accords with known facts. It is certain that the entire line of forts and breastworks against which the charge was directed was fully manned, and that a seemingly solid wall of fire was maintained until the charging party reached the works and broke through; that all the artillery commanding the line of march was in full play, including many enfilading guns; that three thousand prisoners were taken by the Sixth Corps ; and that it lost eleven hundred men killed and wounded in the charge. It was no boy’s play. If the line of attack had not been well chosen and quickly traversed the corps could not have succeeded. No mistakes were made by officers and the spirit of the men was superb.
The results are well known. The Sixth Corps pressed forward without a moment’s delay and before nightfall had cleared the entire country between Hatcher’s Run and the Appomattox River. General Lee in person attempted to stem the tide and narrowly escaped capture. The news was telegraphed to Richmond and Jefferson Davis, with his cabinet, took a special train for Danville, at two P. M. In the evening Petersburg and Richmond were evacuated and the end of the war was near.
A few days later I heard General Meade say that the gallant and successful charge of the Sixth Corps on the morning of the 2d of April was, in his opinion, “the decisive movement of the campaign.” Candor compels me to add that he called it “decissive; ” but the peculiarity of pronunciation did not weaken the value of the praise. It was undoubtedly the decisive movement of the final campaign of the war, which soon resulted in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The importance of the
part taken by the Vermont Brigade on this occasion may safely rest upon the facts which I have stated.
The next day the whole of Grant’s command started for the west with a new objective, — Lee’s flying army. Sheridan and his cavalry pressed the pursuit with such vigor that three days found them in advance of Lee’s left wing. He planted General Crook and General Merritt with their cavalry directly across the road which the Rebels were taking, and then hurried round to their rear, where he met the Sixth Corps which he had been trying to get under his orders ever since he left Five Forks. When the men found that Sheridan was putting them into the fight, their enthusiasm was indescribable. They charged across Sailor’s Creek, attacked the enemy furiously, and forced the surrender of General Ewell and eight thousand men, caught between the cavalry and infantry lines.
A few days later almost identical tactics were repeated at Appomattox Court-House, the remainder of Lee’s army surrendered, and the war was over.
No doubt many remember an article by Colonel Fox in the “Century Magazine” of May 1888, entitled “The Chances of being hit in Battle,” an article which, while purely statistical in form, was intensely interesting, and was subsequently expanded into a volume. One of the tables given was a list of infantry regiments whose loss in killed was two hundred or more, embracing every regiment in the Northern Army in which two hundred or over were killed in action or died of wounds received in action. This list contains forty-five regiments ; it includes the Second, Third, Fifth and Sixth Vermont. His roster of “three hundred fighting regiments ” of course embraces the entire brigade, — Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh Vermont. The total number of deaths in the brigade during the war, including killed in action, deaths from wounds, from diseases and in Rebel prisons, was two thousand four
hundred and seventeen, being about twenty-five per cent of the total membership of the brigade, original enlistments and recruits.
The brigade was engaged in thirty different battles, the names of which are embroidered on the colors of its regiments. It was fortunate in its officers. No unnecessary sacrifice of life is chargeable to reckless handling. Its casualties were evenly distributed; their severity was simply owing to the character of the rank and file. They were called on for the hardest work ; they never knew when they were whipped; they stood together like men and they fought every battle to the end; not one of their colors was ever in a Rebel hand; their appearance was quiet and their speech was often homely, but their hearts were stout and their aim steady. They were never surprised or stampeded ; no panic ever reached them ; their service was intelligent, faithful and honest; they had the full confidence of their commanders; and their countrymen will forever honor their memory. In the words of General Martin T. McMahon, the well known adjutant general of the Sixth Army Corps, “No body of troops in or out of the Sixth Corps had a better record. No body of troops in or out of the Army of the Potomac made their record more gallantly, sustained it more heroically, or wore their honors more modestly ” than the Old Vermont Brigade.
- Military Essays and Recollections. Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 2, pages 204-209 ↩