IN A CHARGE NEAR FORT HELL, PETERSBURG, APRIL 2, 1865.1
By Captain Thomas P. Beals.
WHERE the Jerusalem Plank Road, leading into the city of Petersburg, Va., passed through the earthworks of the contending forces, a little east of south of the city, there had been hot contention from the first approach of the Union army. The right of the original line of Confederate works, prepared in advance by their engineers, rested upon this broad road.
An effort was made shortly after our army arrived in June, 1864, to turn these works by a flanking movement. But our opponents were on the alert for this manoeuvre, marched out beyond our troops and effected large captures from the Second and the Sixth Corps. This set-back, however, did not hinder the “movement to the left,” and finally the Fifth Corps planted itself at the Plank Road, opposite the enemy’s right, about five hundred yards distant and immediately intrenched.
Meade’s line, trending southward to this point, ran along a plateau of some elevation, but at the Plank Road this high ground fell away. At this extremity Fort Sedgwick was constructed, covering the Plank Road. The hostile lines were not far apart north of this point. The breastworks, connecting a chain of forts or redans on our side, had been built at the most advanced position attained by our troops in the desperate and sanguinary assaults by the Ninth, Second, Fifth and Sixth Corps in June. After these fierce struggles the Ninth Corps gradually stretched out and relieved other troops along this portion of the line.
Next on the left of Fort Sedgwick, and near the Jerusalem Plank Road, was Fort Davis, which was at a more comfortable distance from the enemy. The Union lines gradually stretched out their coil of works and forts southward and westward from this point. At the time I am about to mention, General Parke, with the Ninth Corps, occupied our front line of works, also some of those protecting the rear, from a little south of Fort Davis north to the Appomattox, east of Petersburg.
For many months it had been a “warm place,” as soldiers say, referring to the degree of hostilities in and near Fort Sedgwick— (more popularly known as Fort “Hell”). Nearly constant picket firing had been kept up. The picket lines were in very short rifle range and casualties from this practice were of almost daily occurrence. Desertions from the Confederate side had been numerous along here during the darkness of night and probably that had something to do with the expenditure of ammunition. The pickets, to protect themselves, had gradually made fairly good intrenched lines on both sides.
The Confederates had several forts, redans and batteries, near the Jerusalem Plank Road, that swept the approaches in every direction. Back of these were other forts and works which could fire over the front ones or into them, as occasion might demand.
In this vicinity, on the enemy’s side, were Fort Mahone, Battery 28 or “Fort Damnation,” [sic] Batteries 27, 26 and 25. The four last named were on Rives’ Salient. There were others back of these. Here were the siege guns, light batteries, rifles, howitzers and mortars, all trained to repel assault. “Damnation” was nearly opposite Fort Hell and probably acquired its forbidding designation from the “boys” on that account.
It may be well to say right here that a student of the official reports will be somewhat perplexed to know which particular redan was Fort “Damnation.” For my part, it was fixed in my mind that Fort Mahone enjoyed that distinction, and consequently that our attack was upon Fort Mahone. Yet that seems improbable, as the official surveys place the latter fort some four hundred yards to the south of the Plank Road, while I am certain that we struck the fort or redan in near proximity to the Plank Road and that this was always spoken of after the event as Fort “Damnation.”2
During the winter of 1864-65, and up to the last of March, the 31st Maine Regiment, belonging to Second Brigade, Second Division, Ninth Army Corps, had garrisoned Fort Davis, and later had encamped a short distance to the rear of Fort Davis, at Parke Station on the military railroad. One of its duties was to take its turn by a strong detail upon the front picket line, somewhat to the left of Fort Hell3
I would state, in passing, that the 31st Maine at this time comprised what remained of the 31st [Maine] and 32d Maine regiments,— to the latter of which my company had belonged,— made one by consolidation December 12, 1864. These two regiments took the field when the Wilderness campaign opened in the preceding May, and had suffered so largely in battles that, when amalgamated, they made only a medium-sized veteran regiment, although having twelve companies.
Toward the end of March, 1865, General Grant started his last campaign in a movement from the left of his lines, below Petersburg. Severe fighting ensued at Five Forks and near the Boydton Road. The proper time having arrived for it in his tactical operations, Grant issued an order to have every corps commander along his line assault the enemy’s works at four o’clock in the morning of April 2.
General Parke, commanding the Ninth Corps, decided that his assault upon the enemy’s works should be delivered along the Jerusalem Plank Road, the assaulting columns from his Second and Third Divisions to move along the two sides of the Plank Road,— an excellent idea in one important particular, as the hour fixed upon for the charge being before daylight the road would serve for an unmistakable guide. The Second Division was at the left of the road. Parke prepared and carried out an attack or two upon other portions of his front, but he declared in his report that they were intended only for feints to cover his real assault from Fort Hell [or Sedgwick].
At ten o’clock in the evening of April 1, the guns in Fort Hell opened fire with other forts on the line and kept it up till midnight. I think I never heard such a roar of artillery as this bombardment caused, both sides joining in it. Captain [Adelbert B.] Twitchell, of the Seventh Maine Battery in Fort Hell, states in his report that fifty mortar shells were thrown into the fort that evening. A variety of orders was issued. One was that we were to be ready to march at midnight with four days’ rations. At ten o’clock orders came from Major-General Potter, commanding our division, that we must prepare to unite in a general attack on the enemy’s lines the next morning at four o’clock.
Under all these circumstances there was not much opportunity for sleep or rest. A part of the brigade had advanced about one o’clock A. M., under order for immediate attack, at a point about a mile to the left of Fort Hell and captured the picket line of the enemy, with eight officers and two hundred and forty-one prisoners, and was preparing for further advances when orders came withdrawing them from this enterprise: and then our brigade, General Simon G. Griffin commanding, was put into column of attack, forming for it about one hundred yards to the left of Fort Hell, between our main line of works and our picket line.
It was perhaps two o’clock when the column was made up. General Griffin was to lead with our brigade and to be supported by the First Brigade, [Second Division, Ninth Corps,] General [John I.] Curtin commanding.
Griffin made his formation as follows: A storming party was selected to lead the column, consisting of three companies of the 31st Maine Regiment: Company C, commanded by Lieutenant W. H. H. Ware, Company H, Captain Thomas P. Beals, Company L, Captain A. D. Brock, together with the brigade pioneers, all under the command of Captain Beals, the senior officer.
In the rear of the storming party the brigade was formed in column by battalion, that is to say, with a single regimental front, each regiment to follow its predecessor in line of battle in the following order: 179th New York, 31st Maine, 6th New Hampshire, 2d Maryland, 17th Vermont, 186th New York. The 56th Massachusetts was in reserve. The 9th [New Hampshire] and 11th New Hampshire were left to garrison Fort Alexander Hays and Batteries 24 and 25. A part of the First Brigade was also placed in the forts, the remainder of the latter brigade to support Griffin’s Brigade in the assault.
To get all these troops into their proper positions, with their accoutrements on, without noise sufficient to attract the attention of the enemy, especially in the gloom of night, was a delicate and difficult task which took considerable time. But it was successfully accomplished. General Hartranft with his Third Division [, Ninth Corps] was on our right. The time was drawing on. General Griffin rode down to the head of his column, where the storming party was and gave to me very precise orders, the gist of which was, that at the signal, which would be a low call passed along the line, “Four o’clock and all is well,” I should march forward with the storming party in column of fours gaining to the right, until we struck the Jerusalem [Plank] Road, and then to move along that road until we reached the enemy’s works. Our duties would be then to assist the pioneers in removing the cheveaux-de-frise in front of the Confederate works and to lead the main column over them.
I do not think there was any flinching in our small portion of this column of attack, but we had often seen by daylight what we were about to encounter in a physical manner, and there can be no doubt that few of us expected to emerge alive from this affair: for one, I did not. It is said that the veteran soldier prefers assaulting in the light of day, to attacking at night when the foe cannot be seen and measured.
An anxious period of suspense followed, mingled with fear that we might not get started before we ourselves were attacked at a disadvantage. Here I ventured to say a few words to my party. I think these were the words used: “You all know the place we are to attack. All I ask is for you to follow me: if I run, you may run, but don’t desert me.”
At last the signal came along: “Four o’clock and all is well.” First making sure that my party were all on the alert and ready, we moved ahead at a quick step over ground that was fairly good at daylight, but in the dusk of morning it seemed rough and uneven. Nothing could be distinguished beyond a few paces in front.
We reached our picket lines and could then tell about how far we were from those of the enemy. All was quiet in that direction. We hoped to surprise their pickets, capture what were in our way, and then rush right ahead to their main works. So we marched on, uncertain whether we were moving faster or slower than the division that was supposed to be moving on our right beyond the [Jerusalem] Plank Road. This did not matter however, as my orders were not made dependent on the connections. At length the intrenched line of the enemy’s pickets became visible not many yards in our front, when without a stop we made for it at the double-quick. The rebel pickets opened fire just as we were going over their pits. My orderly sergeant, S. L. Kimball, by my side, was shot through the body at that time. I supposed at the time that he was killed, but, a few days after, learned that he crawled back to the rear. He did not recover however. The rebel pickets probably were glad to move to the rear; at any rate we saw no more of them. We made no stop here, and, pushing ahead, soon came to the Jerusalem [Plank] Road, along which our orders were to advance upon their main line.
And now, flushed with the easy victory at the picket line, we took up a quicker movement, a double-quick, and at once our charging yell startled the slumbering shadows of the morning. Then from their forts and batteries they opened fire, and grape and canister crashed into us and over us as we charged on to “Fort Damnation.”4
The enemy’s fire grew hotter. The bullets began to come and my men were falling. Yet we pressed on, realizing that the nearer we approached the more likely were the shots of the enemy to pass over our heads. Reaching the outer margin of the cheveaux-de-frise that fringed the approach to their works, I halted my party to straighten them out and take breath before the final assault. It was now so light that concealment was mostly gone. We had supposed that the main column of attack was moving up behind us at the proper interval and now expected to see it ready for the grapple: but where was it? — nowhere within sight or sound. I had the men lie down close to the ground under the enemy’s guns and, as the light came, began to shoot into the embrasures where they were working their guns. This produced a good effect in distracting somewhat the fire of the enemy and diverting the attention of my own men from their exposed condition. In this situation some unpleasant thoughts began to obtrude themselves, and one of three things could be the only solution of the mystery. The main column had either gone in another direction from our own, or it had not started when the signal was given, or it had started and, when the enemy opened fire, had retreated. I must confess that I have always entertained the last of these conditions as the true one, and was about to state that as what actually occurred. But it is not my province or even my right to state what I did not see, unless it can be substantiated by some official record or other reliable evidence, and my impression was probably wrong. It is more likely that some delay occurred in the start and that the main column did not move up so rapidly as the storming party. The consequence would be the delay now so seriously felt both by the advanced party and by the main column itself in the form of the shelling that was rained down from all the guns of the enemy, direct and cross fire, covering the entire field.
In front of us loomed up the formidable fort, belching forth its murderous iron, the very object of our attack. It seemed as if an hour had passed when our ears caught the Union war cry, and we knew that the charge was on. As they appeared in the distance, the storming party and the pioneers crawled up still nearer, rushed forward to the obstruction and cut it away; separated the logs, into which the sharpened stakes were driven and connected by wire; and by pulling out one end of the logs we turned the sharpened points the other way, soon opening a space broad enough for the column front to enter, and then we pushed on for the fort. But here we found another difficulty. A trench had been cut outside the fort many feet deep. The recent rains had partly filled this trench with water. Some of the men fell in as they rushed ahead to climb the high, slanting ascent and were unable to get out and were drowned. All was excitement now. Finding the direct approach impossible, we circled around to the left, and this time, after a sharp struggle in which the troops of the main column participated with us, all in a bunch, we forced our way inside their works. Many prisoners were taken, but many of the garrison ran back behind their inner lines. The cannon were ours and were immediately turned and worked by infantry until a detachment of artillery men was sent up from Fort Sedgwick to handle them. The captured fort being open in the rear we at once became the object of a fierce fire from their inner lines and forts and traverses running back from their outer lines of works. The regiments, after entering the fort, took up the gage of battle and drove the enemy to the left. It was a series of charges and the organizations became intermingled, although fighting with a will.
In relating the occurrences of the charge it was my intention to confine myself to personal observation and I will refrain from quoting the official records, having landed the brigade inside those works that had for more than nine months defiantly flaunted the Confederate colors in our faces.
Now for my own subsequent experiences. A few moments after we had captured the fort, I was struck by a fragment of an exploding shell upon my left shoulder and was stunned. I lay unconscious for a long time, but at length revived. The fighting was still going on. I got up and went into one of the protected quarters, or bomb-proofs, which proved to be the officers’ quarters of the garrison, but now vacant. It afforded some protection, but the opening was at the exposed end. Here I picked up a muster roll of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment, which I still retain as a souvenir.
Finding that my services for the day were ended, I started back towards our lines, on the [Jerusalem] Plank Road. I remember noticing the water channels along the roadside were tinged red with the blood of our men who had fallen under the fierce fire as they moved up, and some of them were there where they fell.
Getting back to the intrenchment of the Confederate picket line, I stopped to rest. Here, lying under cover, was a regiment that had not gone in. By and by I noticed that our men were retreating, some of them at least, having been driven by the resolute and well handled troops of the enemy.
Some of our troops hung on the outside of the works and were still holding them, protecting the gunners. And so the contest raged. Some regiments that had been held in reserve were sent forward.
Now appeared to be the time for the regiment where I lay to show their hand. Getting into a conversation, the language of the men proved to be broken German or Dutch. I asked why they did not go forward and the reply was that they had no officers to lead them. This might have been true as far as field officers were concerned, but there were line officers of course, and I began to get excited; finally, out of patience, I talked loud enough to draw the attention of any officers around there; but none appeared to notice and the men kept up the complaint, declaring they would follow any officer who would lead them.
Finally an officer, not of their own, jumped up on the bank, drew his sword, and waving it aloft, shouted out that he was an officer and wounded, but he would lead them in, started forward and said: “Come on!” Not a man of them moved an inch.
In striking contrast with the behavior of that regiment was that of some other regiments which advanced somewhat later while I was still in the picket intrenchment. These, I understood, were sent up from City Point, arriving about two o’clock P. M. They had reported to General Griffin and he directed them to go into the captured works, which they did.5
I remember noticing among them a regiment of Zouaves.6 These with their brilliant uniforms and fine behavior restored my peace of mind, as they gallantly advanced across the plain. And it was not long before they had possession of the fort, and I never saw “Old Glory” look grander than when our troops stood on the rebel parapet, waving the old flag. It was an inspiration to our men to rally around it. I could shout for joy. The captured works were now securely held, and from this point of the lines the first entry was made into Petersburg on the morning of the third of April.
Later on, in the afternoon of the second, I got back into Fort Hell and was taken into one of the bomb-proofs by a member of the Seventh Maine Battery. The mortar shelling and artillery fire from the enemy was still in progress. In fact, there had been no time since daybreak when the ground was not receiving fresh invoices of metal from the other side. After I got to this place of safety some refreshments were administered and my condition was improved. While here a mortar shell from over the way exploded on the top of the bomb-proof, which threw down a heap of dirt, half burying me. I recall the excited appearance and action of the horses coming up from the rear into Fort Hell with ammunition, as if imbued with the fury and rush of battle. The day closed.
General Griffin, in his official report, after speaking of the storming party and complimenting some of its officers, says: “Of this gallant party of one hundred and eight men, composed of Companies C, H and L, 31st Maine Volunteers, five were killed and thirty-two wounded.”(1) The loss of the 31st Maine was seventy-five killed and wounded, beside five captured or missing. The total loss of the brigade, in killed, wounded and missing, was four hundred and twenty-one; total of the division, seven hundred and twenty-two.
Lieutenant-Colonel [Edward L.] Getchell, commanding the 31st Maine, and Major [George A.] Bolton were both wounded and the command of the regiment fell to Captain [Charles W.] Keyes.
The wounded were sent down to City Point. President Lincoln was there. This great and tender hearted man came through the field hospital, stopped at each cot and shook hands with its occupant, with a word of cheer and encouragement as he gave us this token of his brotherly love and of his appreciation of the individual sacrifices cheerfully made and of suffering borne with soldierly fortitude.
(1) Captain Beals was mentioned in General Griffin’s official report for “brave and gallant conduct” on this occasion. Rebellion Records, Serial No. 95, page 1056. Editors.
- Beals, Thomas P. “In a Charge Near Fort Hell, Petersburg, April 2, 1865.” War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 2, pp. 105–115 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Beals was on to something here. His regiment and the column it belonged to actually assaulted Battery 28. Fort Mahone was further west and stood out in front of the main Confederate works. Fort Mahone was the true “Fort Damnation,” not Battery 28. As a result, Beals and the 31st Maine did NOT assault Fort Damnation, but the next work to its east, Battery 28. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Fort Sedgwick, the Union Fort opposite Confederate Fort Damnation or Mahone, was called Fort Hell. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: As discussed earlier, Beals actually charged on Battery 28, NOT on Fort Damnation or Mahone. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Beals is talking about the Provost Brigade of the Army of the Potomac under Brevet Brigadier General Charles H. T. Collis, sent to Parke’s Ninth Corps as reinforcements when the Confederates were mounting counterattacks to regain their lines. Collis was made a Brevet Major General as a result of his actions and those of his brigade on April 2, 1865. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 114th Pennsylvania, aka Collis’ Zouaves or the Zoauves D’Afrique, were a part of the Provost Brigade. ↩