By GEORGE K. DAUCHY.
[Read May 8, 1890.]
IN the summer of 1864 the Army of the Potomac, after the ineffectual assaults on the inner line of the enemy’s works which followed its first appearance in front of Petersburg, busied itself in forming strong lines parallel to those of the enemy. These consisted of forts, some closed and others open in the rear, connected by field works, and all covered in front by abattis, stretching as far south as the Jerusalem plank road. There the lines, after approaching very closely to the enemy’s works, culminated in the strong fort known officially as Fort Sedgwick, but universally in the army as Fort Hell, from the continuous and deadly fire to which it was subjected both by night and by day. Thereafter, bearing sharply to the southwest for a mile or so, the lines were returned to our rear to cover our camps. These returned works were unoccupied, but were ready for use in case of an attack from that quarter, the greater part of our forces being in the lines facing Petersburg. The musketry firing on the front was incessant, with an occasional outburst of artillery. Not, however, along the whole line; in accordance with the tacit agreement of the men, the firing on some parts of the line was sharp during the daytime, and on other parts during the night, while only at the points where the works closely approached each other, or where the colored troops were in the trenches, was the firing kept up both night and day.
Our ranks had been fearfully depleted by the incessant battles from the 5th of May to the 30th of June, during which time we had lost in the Second corps 21,724 in killed, wounded, and missing, in addition to the losses by sickness. This was
out of a force of 28,330 with which we had crossed the Rapidan on the fourth day of May, although we had been reinforced from time to time by the return of reenlisted veterans and convalescents, and more notably by several large regiments of heavy artillery from the forts around Washington and in Maryland. The losses, both of officers and men, were of the very best material, seasoned by years of experience and accustomed to all the exigencies of service.
We began, soon after arriving in front of Petersburg, to receive recruits to replace those we had lost; but the men received, principally drafted men and substitutes, although adding to our numbers, poorly replaced the splendid soldiers lost in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. They needed a long period of discipline and training to make them comparable to those we had lost, and for this the continual service in the trenches gave very little opportunity.
A little incident in regard to the Fifth New Hampshire regiment, occurring somewhat later on, will show the character of a large part of the addition to our numbers. The Fifth New Hampshire had been one of the very best regiments in the service, and I think I am correct in stating that it lost more men in action than any other regiment in the Union armies. It had been commanded, until his death on the field of battle at Gettysburg, by the heroic Colonel Cross. The regiment had been filled up largely by Canadians, who had come across the border and enlisted for the sake of the large bounties. When I lay with my guns in Battery Nine near the Petersburg and City Point Road, this regiment was close by on my flank, and the men deserted to the enemy to so great an extent that in the chaffing across the lines which occurred every day about dusk the rebels called on us to send over the flag and the colonel to command the regiment, as the greater part of it had come over to them.
The sanitary condition of the army was excellent, the country around Petersburg being fairly healthy. The soil was sandy,
generally covered by timber, with good water obtainable everywhere by digging from ten to twenty feet. We suffered much from heat, however, having no rain for six weeks, from the middle of June till the first of August, so that the air was filled with dust raised by the supply wagons as they rolled along the roads, furnishing us with an abundance of pepper for our food without the necessity of troubling the Commissary Department.
We rested thus until the 13th of August, if the continuous fighting in the trenches, an occasional excursion to attack the enemy’s lines north of the James, and the fighting at the mine could be called resting; and, compared with the incessant and bloody fighting of the first six weeks of the campaign, it appeared quite peaceful. On that date the Second corps was sent to the north of the James on the report that Lee had detached largely to reinforce Early in the Valley; from there it was, after heavy fighting, hurried to Petersburg on the 18th and 19th to support Warren in the movement to extend our left and obtain possession of the Weldon Railroad, a favorable opportunity for which was afforded by the absence of the troops sent by Lee to the north of the James to repel the attack made on him there. The advancement of our lines to the Weldon Railroad was very desirable, having the double object of cutting that railroad as a source of supply for the rebel forces, and of advancing our lines to a point whence it might be possible to strike the railroad leading from Petersburg to Lynchburg.
The country between our left and the Weldon Railroad being heavily wooded, with thick underbrush and traversed by obscure wood roads, well known to the enemy but not to us, gave him a fine opportunity to search for our flanks and strike our picket lines. The movement thus gave rise to a series of severe engagements attended with heavy losses on both sides, the final result being that the enemy was defeated and driven off, and our new lines strongly fortified and connection made with the right near the Jerusalem plank road.
It was considered very desirable to destroy the Weldon Rail-
road as far south as Rowanty Creek, twenty miles from Petersburg and eight miles from Ream’s Station, to prevent the enemy from using the railroad to bring supplies as near as possible to our lines, and thence to Petersburg by wagons around our left. In order to effect this, General Hancock was ordered to take the First and Second divisions of his corps to Ream’s Station, first tearing up the road to that point, then to hold it with one-half of his force and employ the remainder in destroying beyond as far as practicable. The troops, at the time of this movement, were very much worn and fatigued, having been in continual motion for twelve days; they had marched to the north of the James, where the fighting had been severe, and back again through the rain, over muddy roads, making their marches by night. The infantry in the two divisions available for this duty was from 6,000 to 6,500 strong, and in addition General Hancock had with him about 2,000 cavalry under General Gregg. The First division began the work at noon of the 22d from the vicinity of the “Yellow Tavern,” also known as “Globe Tavern,” and by night of the 23d had reached Ream’s Station. The Second division left Globe Tavern on the afternoon of the 23d, taking with it the Twelfth New York battery under my command and the Third New Jersey battery; the Tenth Massachusetts and the consolidated Batteries A and B of the First Rhode Island were with the First division. The Third New Jersey battery, commanded by Captain Woerner, known in the corps as the “Dutch Battery,” was well officered and well disciplined, and did good and effective service; but the captain was a little peculiar sometimes in his ideas of military duty. One day the batteries of the corps, being in great part in service in the forts, a vigorous cannonade broke out, putting all the other batteries, and headquarters as well, on the alert for fear of a sudden attack on some point. Aids and orderlies were hurriedly sent to every battery of the corps to find out the cause of the sudden outburst. The aids sent to the other batteries found them all aroused and ready for action, but not firing. The
one sent to Captain Woerner found him firing case-shot along the line of the enemy’s pickets, on a portion of which his position had an enfilading fire. In response to an inquiry as to the cause of his firing, he replied: “Oh, I was firing at those pickets; I likes to make them jump.”
The Second division bivouacked for the night at the point where the country road to Ream’s Station leaves the Jerusalem plank road, and at half-past three o’clock of the morning of the 24th marched to Ream’s Station, arriving there about seven o’clock in the morning. The Second division relieved the pickets and the troops of the First division in the works, and the troops of that division began the work of destroying the railroad south of Ream’s Station, which by nightfall they succeeded in doing effectually, as far as Malone’s, three miles south.
At night on the 24th our signal officers reported, and General Hancock and General Warren were notified, that a force of the enemy, estimated at from 8,000 to 10,000, was marching south from Petersburg around our left toward Ream’s Station by the Halifax and Vaughan roads.
The works at Ream’s Station had been thrown up by the troops of the Sixth corps in the latter part of June, at the time when they had been sent out to protect Wilson’s cavalry on its return from the raid on the Lynchburg and Petersburg Railroad. They were hurriedly thrown up, badly constructed, and poorly located. Instead of using the railroad for a base, the main line, facing west, was placed about twenty to thirty yards west and not more than seventy to eighty yards from a wood in front of and nearly parallel to the railroad. It was nearly half a mile long, with openings in the centre and at each end for the railroad and turnpike to pass through; then, crossing the railroad, both returns ran northeasterly for a distance of about a thousand yards, forming an obtuse angle at the right and an acute angle at the left, the returns being nearly parallel to each other. The part of the railroad inside of the works passed through a cut on the right and along an embankment on
the left, so that with Sleeper’s battery of four guns and one section of Perrin’s battery placed on the west front on the left, it was difficult to supply them with ammunition from the caissons across the track, and impossible to withdraw them in case of a reverse. The horses were also fully exposed to the fire of the enemy over the low parapet.
The left return was fully as badly located, running at such an angle that the men in the works were directly in range of the fire from the enemy attacking the front line. The result was that the troops of the Second division fought from one side of their works when they were attacked by the enemy in their direct front, and from the other side when they were subjected to the fire of those attacking our lines from the west. The right return was run parallel to a strip of woods at a distance of two or three rods, the road to the station running along between the woods and the works. General Hancock had had no thought of a battle here, or the works would have been reformed and made tenable.
At nightfall of the 24th the troops were all drawn within the works. On the morning of the 25th the Second division started out to continue the work of destroying the railroad, but soon encountered a large force of the enemy’s cavalry supported by infantry. The whole force fell back, and before noon was again inside the works, the first division occupying the point from the crossing of the railroad on the left, and the right return, and the Second division the left return.
The artillery was posted as follows: Two guns of Perrin’s battery on the left of the railroad, facing south, and two guns across the railroad, facing west. Alongside of Perrin’s two guns facing west were Sleeper’s four guns. The Twelfth New York battery was posted about three hundred yards to the right of the church, situated near the angle made by the right return with the railroad, where the works formed a little angle. Farther along to the right was Woerner, who was afterwards, when the enemy threatened our left return, moved to the cornfield in the rear of
the woods, two of his guns bearing on the left of our front, near where the left return began, and two facing south.
At twelve o’clock the enemy drove in the picket line and advanced with some force on our works, but was quickly driven back. At one o’clock he made a determined attack, advancing to within thirty yards of our works before being repulsed. Our picket line was reestablished and some prisoners taken. Shortly after, another attack was made with a line of battle, and the enemy’s dead were left within three yards of our lines. Our skirmishers on advancing again took some prisoners, from whom we learned that the enemy was in strong force and was establishing batteries in our front. During this time the Twelfth New York battery had been searching the woods to the west of our front in which the enemy was lying, with solid shot and shell, and had been firing shrapnel and canister as the enemy appeared in the open, while the guns of the batteries on the front were served with great effect on the advancing foe.
I wish to say here that the book of light artillery instructions makes no mention of grape-shot; that in the Eastern army, and I presume the same thing was true for all our armies, no grapeshot was issued to the field artillery during the war, although plenty of canister was used. Still, I suppose that since nearly all our histories speak so freely and fully of the firing of grapeshot, in the future it will be considered as an undoubted fact that grape was used most abundantly.
During the 24th and the forenoon of the 25th my artillerymen had been listlessly lying around in the woods, in which were placed our limbers, caissons, ambulance, etc., enjoying the luxury of “roasting ears” which we found in the field in the rear of the woods. We did not think the enemy would send a force large enough to attack us so far from his lines, and, in fact, considered the excursion rather in the light of a picnic. After the attack made about two o’clock, General Miles, apprehensive that the enemy would attack at the point where the railroad ran through the works near the church, ordered me to send one
gun from my battery to a point in front of the church just in the rear of the railroad cut, to bear on the point where the railroad and the turnpike passed out of the works at the northwest angle. I sent Lieutenant Brower, a brave and capable soldier, with the gun. I hesitated about sending him as he was my only officer, and in an occasion which might be so critical I did not wish to be so short of help; but I gave him his choice of remaining with the battery or going with the gun, one gun being a sergeant’s command. He chose the path of honor. Little did I think, as the gallant and brave young fellow passed out of my sight into the woods, that I was never again to see the true-hearted companion with whom I had messed for years. He seemed to have a premonition that he would not return, for, as he was riding away, he took out his watch and handed it to the carrier of the guidon, a fine young soldier and protege of his, and then, thinking apparently that such an act savored of weakness, replaced it in his pocket. Shortly after that Captain Sleeper, of the Tenth Massachusetts, came riding by us in the direction of the rear, wounded in the arm, and calling out gaily as he passed us, “Thirty days leave.”
The enemy had been so easily repulsed in his previous charge that we felt little apprehension of his success in breaking our lines or doubt of holding our position till night, when we could withdraw. Meantime, two brigades of the Third division of the Second corps under Colonel McAllister, and the Third division of the Ninth corps, commanded by General Wilcox, had been ordered up to our support; but, instead of coming by the Halifax road, a broad turnpike and the direct route from Warren’s line, only four miles distant from Ream’s Station, over which orderlies and aids had been passing and along which we had a telegraph line, they were moved over roads of more than double the distance by way of the Jerusalem plank road. The time requisite for passing over this route was so long that the crisis of the battle was over before they reached the point on the Jerusalem plank road from which the road to Ream’s branches off; and the divi-
sion of the Ninth corps was ordered forward to Ream’s to protect our withdrawal, leaving the troops of the Third division of the Second corps to hold the intersection against an attack by the enemy’s cavalry.
After the last charge spoken of above, the force of the enemy was largely increased until it amounted in all to eight brigades of infantry. Although no reports of the numbers of the enemy are on file in the War Department, as near as can be determined their numbers were from 10,000 to 12,000 infantry, and Hampton reports his cavalry at from 3,000 to 3,500 men. The enemy had placed eight guns in our front, serving them with great vigor and effect, their fire being directly in our front, and also having an enfilading fire on our left return, which forced Gibbon’s troops to the outside of their intrenchment to cover themselves. In this position they were attacked by the enemy’s cavalry and McGowan’s two regiments of infantry, against which Gregg’s cavalry, dismounted and protected by a light breastwork of rails, and fighting with gallantry and efficiency, took up a position on our extreme left from which it had an enfilading fire on the enemy. The enemy made three light dashes on our works in front at about a quarter past three, half-past three, and again at five o’clock. Twenty minutes after the last mentioned attack they opened upon our lines with a severe fire from the eight guns placed in front amongst some pines and close to our works, in order to shake the troops on whom the attack was to be made. This fire was returned with effect by the guns of the Tenth Massachusetts and the Rhode Island battery, and from the right by the Twelfth New York with an enfilading fire. The horses of the Tenth Massachusetts were nearly all killed, and the Rhode Island battery had suffered to nearly the same extent. At about 5:40 P. M. the artillery fire of the enemy slackened, and a strong column of four brigades,— Cooke, McRae, Lane, and Scales, — supported by Anderson’s brigade and three regiments of McGowan’s brigade, advanced against the northwest angle. The column was obstructed by
the light slashing in front, and badly shaken by the fire it received from both infantry and artillery. A rapid fire of canister was poured into its flanks by the Twelfth New York battery on its left, and by the Tenth Massachusetts and the Rhode Island batteries on its right. Lieutenant Brower was killed almost at the beginning of the charge, but his gun was most effectually served until the enemy had nearly surrounded it.
The attack, so warmly received, was repulsed at most points, but as a result of the bad conduct of the consolidated brigade consisting of the Seventh, Fifty-second, and Thirty-ninth New York regiments, it made a lodgment in our works and passed through the gap in our entrenchments. General Miles, always capable and efficient, had, by order of General Hancock, provided against such a contingency by placing across the railroad cut, and twenty yards in the rear of the consolidated brigade, as a reserve, four regiments of a small brigade he had received from General Gibbon to take the place of his troops on the skirmish line on Gibbon’s front. The fifth and largest regiment of this brigade was sent outside of the works, to join the picket and cavalry skirmish line, and to attack the enemy in flank and rear as he charged on the works. General Miles says that five minutes more of good fighting would have driven the enemy out, and that we had every reason to believe that the enemy would not only be repulsed but attacked in flank and rear by the troops outside the works.
As the enemy came inside of our works, General Miles stood on the bank at the cut, and, as a rebel color-bearer came over the parapet almost at his feet, he looked for Colonel Rugg,(1) commanding the four regiments of the reserve, and, not finding him at the moment, gave the order himself to Rugg’s brigade to rush into the cut and commence firing. To his astonishment, they either lay down on their faces or ran to the rear.
(1) This officer was afterwards dismissed from the service for incompetency and disobedience of orders in the movement on the Boydton plank road in October.
In the language of General Morgan, inspector-general of the corps, “These regiments remained like a covey of partridges until flushed and captured almost en masse.” When it is considered that a regiment so renowned as the Twentieth Massachusetts was included amongst these, it can be seen what an utter change there was in the character of the material comprising them. On the utter failure of this reserve to act, General Miles moved to the left where the Fourth brigade, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Broady, was fighting gallantly, and ordered it to move to the right; but as the enemy was now pouring into the gap in heavy force and coming over the works as his front was cleared, the Fourth brigade was driven off and the rebels captured the left of our west line. Granger of the Tenth Massachusetts fought his guns to the last, retiring from one gun to the next, until the enemy, as he fired his last charge of canister, rushed upon his left piece. Then, leaping the embankment, he escaped with his men, having no horses to limber with, even if it had been possible to draw the guns over the embankment at that point. The following is an extract from the memorial address of Hon. Charles M. Stedman, Wilmington, N. C., May 10, 1890, in which he mentions this attack:
“In truth the Federal infantry did not show the determination which had generally marked the conduct of Hancock’s corps. Not so with the Federal artillery. It was fought to the last with unflinching courage. Some minutes before the second assault was made, General McRea had ordered Lieutenant Kyle with the sharpshooters to concentrate his fire upon the Federal batteries. Many men and horses rapidly fell under the deadly fire of these intrepid marksmen. Yet still the artillerists who were left stood by their guns. When McRea’s brigade crossed the embankment, a battery which was on his right front as he advanced wheeled to a right angle with its original position and opened a fire of canister at close quarters, enfilading the Confederate line. General McRea immediately ordered this battery to be taken. Although entirely abandoned by its infantry support, it continued a rapid fire upon the attack-
ing column until the guns were reached. Some of the gunners even refused to surrender and were taken by sheer physical force. They were animated in their gallant conduct by the example of their commanding officer. He was a conspicuous target and his voice could be distinctly heard encouraging his men. Struck with admiration by his bravery, every effort was made by General McRea, Captain Oldham, Captain Bingham, and one or two others who were among the first to reach the guns, to save the life of the manly opponent. Unfortunately, he was struck by a ball which came from the extreme flank and he fell mortally wounded, not more lamented by his own men than by those who combatted him.”
The action of the One Hundred and Fifty-second New York, the regiment of Gibbon’s division sent outside to attack the charging column of the enemy in flank and rear, was no less disgraceful than that of the four regiments of the same brigade in reserve by the angle. Captain Martin, a division inspector, and a cool and reliable officer, reports that not a shot was fired at it, but that it broke and ran in a disgraceful manner, only two men in the regiment discharging their pieces.
The enemy now formed in column on the road leading to our right on the inside of our works, with a force also advancing outside of the breastworks. General Miles rode up to the Twelfth New York battery and ordered one gun to be turned to sweep the road inside the breastwork as soon as our troops were out of the way. He then endeavored to form a line across the woods running along to the left of the road, but with no success, as it was broken up about as fast as he formed it. As soon as the enemy had moved his column out of the cover of the woods and was advancing along the road, the gun of the Twelfth New York battery was fired into the head of the column with a triple charge of canister. The road over which the enemy advanced was hard and smooth and the best possible for the effective use of canister, as the bullets which did not strike the enemy directly did so on the rebound. The column melted away under the fire, and when the smoke arose no trace of it appeared.
The part of the enemy’s force which was advancing under cover of the woods, easily driving away the men Miles had been able to collect to oppose them, came out on the left of the battery, which Miles, on seeing the inefficiency of the force formed across the woods to hold the enemy, had ordered to withdraw. The enemy, seeing the movement, fired a volley disabling the wheel horses on two limbers so that the guns could not be limbered. The third piece limbered and moved down the road a few yards when its horses fell, and the gun could not be withdrawn further at the time, but it was beyond the point reached by the advancing enemy. On giving the order to “limber to the rear,” in obedience to the command of General Miles, I went into the woods and mounted my horse and started out to lead off the battery. As I turned toward the guns I saw the position was full of rebels, and I galloped a short distance away to the point where Hancock and Miles were rallying the troops. This part of the line was retaken very quickly; but, owing to the singular interpretation by the provost guard of their orders to let no unarmed men go to the front, the cannoneers were unable to return to their guns, and, having taken the lanyards with them to prevent the guns being used by the enemy, fire could not be reopened by the battery. This was the farthest point reached by the enemy, and but a comparatively small number came so far. Meanwhile, the Third New Jersey battery, under Captain Woerner, supported by a few troops collected by General Hancock, was fighting most gallantly and effectively from the cornfield back of the woods. Firing upon the enemy along the left return of our lines and upon the left of our front where there was no timber to obstruct his range, he, aided by the splendid service of the cavalry, prevented the enemy from advancing on our left. The Second division had, with very few honorable exceptions, done almost nothing to stem the tide, notwithstanding the most urgent efforts of Gibbon and his staff and a large part of his officers. The men broke and could not be rallied, although
Gibbon says that the enemy’s efforts, after capturing our line, were feeble, and that a fraction of the spirit manifested on a hundred occasions by this old division of Sedgwick would have given us a most complete success. In how many bloody conflicts and heroic engagements had the same division been led by Gibbon himself!
In the mean time, General Hancock and General Miles, with their staffs and numerous officers, were making the most strenuous efforts to form a line to oppose the enemy’s advance, which, on account of his heavy losses, was very feeble. The Sixty-first New York stood up staunchly to the work, and, acting as a base for a line of the broken men formed both outside and inside of the works and at right angles to them, this regiment drove the enemy gradually back to the angle at the church, reaching the gun lately commanded by Brower. General Miles at dark placed two hundred men outside on the enemy’s flank and rear and drove him back; he said that if he had had a brigade he could have swept the enemy’s troops from the field with great loss of prisoners, as they were then in great confusion. General Miles says in his report: “In going to the front, I could hear the enemy’s men calling out their regiments. I felt confident his loss was much heavier than ours, that his confusion was equal, and that I could retake all my line.”
The reinforcements had not arrived on the field, and at eight o’clock orders were given to withdraw. This was done, the provost guard and the Sixty-first New York bringing up the rear and helping to get off the guns and carriages of the Twelfth New York battery by hand until horses could be brought to draw them away.
The gunner of one of the pieces had been wounded in the bowels, but managed to get behind a large tree and lie down just beyond the point where the left of the battery had rested, but farther than the enemy had come. As I came along when our troops retook that part of the field, he handed me a large sum of money, from $150 to $175 I think (we had been paid off
a few days before and he had had no opportunity to send the money home), together with his watch and other valuables, with a request to send them to his family. At about ten o’clock, when I had had all my carriages drawn off, I put him on the last caisson; but the jolting along the rough road, through the woods, over stumps, and through ruts, caused him so much suffering that he begged me to lay him down by the side of the road and let him die. I could not listen to such a request, notwithstanding the agony he endured, but carried him along to the field by the Jerusalem plank road, where the battery and troops were assembled preparatory to returning to the Petersburg lines. There he died and was buried in a lonely field. He was an excellent man and as good and faithful a soldier as I ever knew.
The heavy losses, the destruction of the advancing column by the Twelfth New York battery, together with the admirable service of Woerner’s guns, aided by the cavalry, had broken up the organization of the enemy’s forces and he made no further effort to advance after the little force gathered together by Hancock and Miles had driven him back to the angle by the church. During the night he withdrew his troops and returned to Petersburg, fearing, doubtless, that if he remained so far from his works he might be attacked with overpowering force the next day, or that advantage might be taken of the absence of so many troops from Petersburg to break through his lines at some weaker point.
By daylight on the morning of the 26th all our troops were in their camps around Petersburg and the most humiliating event in the history of the Second corps was over. The bearing of Hancock on this occasion was, as always, most admirable. The disposition of the troops was of the best, all contingencies were guarded against and provided for, and the heavy losses inflicted on the enemy and his inability to follow up the advantage he had gained, notwithstanding the great preponderance of his forces, were due to the action of Hancock, Miles, and other officers, who, even after the breaking of the lines, would have
snatched victory from defeat if but a small part of Gibbon’s forces could have been depended upon. General Hancock had his horse killed under him, his bridle-rein cut by a bullet, and was continually galloping along the front encouraging the men in the ranks and urging the stragglers to resume their places in the lines and do their duty. The conduct of Miles was no less admirable, as on all occasions, always at the point where he was most needed and making the best dispositions of the forces under his command.
From this lowest point, the corps recovered gradually, becoming in October, with the return of many of its officers and soldiers from absence caused by sickness and wounds, capable of showing, in the action on Hatcher’s Run, that it had renewed its old spirit. It was ready at the opening of the campaign in the spring to act with all its old fire, well worthy of the renown it had gained through its years of service, and to prove that it could dare and do as much as on the terrible day of the fight at the angle at Spotsylvania.
- 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 3, pages 125-140 ↩