Assault on the Lines of Petersburg, April 2, 1865.1
By Bvt. Major Charles H. Anson, U. S. V.
(Read November 7, 1888.)
FOR nine long months, during the years 1864 and 1865, the Army of the Potomac had invested the city of Petersburg, Virginia, constantly reaching out its left arm in attempts to turn the Confederate right, its objective, the capture of Lee’s army and the city of Richmond. Both armies had passed the winter behind substantial breastworks, planned by experienced engineers; at intervals, and on advantageous points, forts and redans were built, where heavy ordnance was placed, sweeping the entire field between the contending armies.
The right of the Union line rested on the Appomat[t]ox, east of the city; its left, near Hatcher’s Run, southwest of and distant about eight miles from the city. The distance between the contending lines varied from a few hundred yards to two miles; at Forts Fisher and Welch, along the center of the line, they were distant about one mile.
The Confederate line in general corresponded with that of the Union army.
In the early part of March, 1865, Gen. Lee proposed a conference with Gen. Grant, with a view to “an adjustment of the present difficulties.” The proposition was referred to President Lincoln, who directed Gen. Grant “to hold no conference with Lee except for the surrender of his army.”
Early in the morning of March 25th, Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman],
a stronghold near the right of the Union line, was surprised, captured, and held for a time by the Confederates under command of Gen. Gordon. Their success, however, was of short duration; death-dealing shot and shell from batteries on either side of the fort made sad havoc in their forces, while columns of infantry, rapidly concentrating from right and left, cut off their retreat, capturing about 2,000 prisoners. Thus ended a strong demonstration on the Union right; Lee hoping it would induce Gen. Meade to withdraw his left, thereby giving his army a clear and unobstructed line of retreat to the south, to unite with Johnston’s army, a movement which had been decided upon.2 It was thought that this attack might have been a feint, or the initial step to the evacuation of the Confederate line, so the 6th Corps was directed to make a demonstration from their front, to develop the strength of the enemy, and determine, if possible, their intentions.
By reason of the firing on the right in the morning, expecting any moment to be called upon, the 6th Corps stood under arms until about nine o’clock. Soon after noon, orders were received to break camp and make ready for battle. About four o’clock the lines of blue filed over and to the front of their works, on the left of Fort Fisher, and formed line of battle, under a heavy artillery fire from the Confederate line, as well as from their entrenched picket line about midway between the armies, which was strongly manned. The capture of this entrenched line was preliminary to, and in preparation for, the assault soon to occur, as will be observed in the position taken for the grand charge, the night of April 1st.3
A flag waving from Fort Fisher was the signal to charge. Forward they went on the run, not a man flinching, yet, it may be, many a heart trembling while facing
that hail storm of shot and shell and musket ball; ere the charge was finished, many a heart ceased to beat, many a comrade had given his life, many a home was made sad for some loved one that had fallen.
A grand charge had been made, a victory won; the entrenched picket line of the enemy had been taken, a thousand prisoners captured; the position was held by the captors.
Three days later, March 28, a remarkable conference was held at City Point. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, the peerless Grant, the distinguished Sherman, the gallant Sheridan, the thoughtful, capable Meade were in consultation. Just what their conversation was has not been made public, but it is known that General Grant’s plan of operations was approved.
The following day, March 29, was the appointed time for the grand movement. The 2d and 5th Corps moved by the left flank to the southwest; the 24th Corps moved into the position thus vacated. Sheridan, with his cavalry, moved to Dinwiddie Court House. March 30th the lines were advanced in a torrent of rain, lasting throughout the day and night, rendering the country as near bottomless as it was possible to imagine. March 31st the lines of the 2d and 5th Corps were extended to the left, bringing on a spirited engagement, resulting in the repulse of the enemy. At this time the left of the Union line rested near the junction of the Claiborne and the White Oak roads; its entire length, in its varying course, was about fifteen miles. The positions of the Corps from right to left were in the following order: the 9th, 6th, 24th, 2d, 5th, with Sheridan to their left and rear.
Thus briefly outlined were the positions of the Union forces March 29th, 30th and 31st, opposed by the Confederates under command of their most distinguished
leader. The time had arrived when all, from Generals Grant and Meade to those of the rank and file, were conscious that the final struggle was near.
To prevent the success of these movements, Gen. Lee moved heavy columns of infantry and cavalry to his right, resulting in the Battle of Five Forks, April 1st, where Sheridan took them in, not in detail, but in mass. The success at Five Forks was consummated by the cooperation of the 5th Corps, under command of one of the most conscientious, meritorious, capable and loyal soldiers that the silver stars ever honored, Gen. G[ouverneur]. K. Warren.
While these important events were transpiring on the left, preparations were being made for the grand assault, by the corps on the right and center. The duty assigned to the 6th Corps, occupying the center, was to form in mass, by divisions in echelon, strike a mighty blow and cut the Confederate army in two. A point had been carefully selected in front of Fort Welch, and just in rear of the intrenched picket line captured one week previous. From this point was a slight ravine running directly to the enemy’s works, a distance of about six hundred yards. The ravine was previously covered with timber, which had been cut for fuel during the winter, the stumps and brush remaining, with more or less water in the lower places. At a point where the ravine passed through, there was an opening in the Confederate works of about fifty feet, at either side of which, on the rise of ground, were placed heavy guns, fully manned and well supported. Gen. Wright had great confidence in the success of the assault, having expressed the opinion that he would “make fur fly,” when he got the word.
When Gen. Grant was informed of the success of Sheridan at Five Forks, a bombardment of the enemy’s
line was ordered along the 9th Corps on the right. Long will that night be remembered by those who, anxiously and prayerfully, were waiting the command for action.
In the 6th Corps, in the 2d Division, in the 2d Brigade, was a regiment bearing a yellow flag, distinctive in its beauty; printed on its silken folds were the memorable words, “Freedom and Unity.”(1) This flag has been borne a fitting companion to the national banner during many a hard-fought day; though soiled and pierced with bullet holes, not a man but loved it truly and well; second only to the stars and stripes was it held in admiration. With your permission, we will follow this regiment into the battle, and try to tell you something of the experience, impressions and thoughts of one of its younger officers.
The night of April 1st was dark, damp, chilly and gloomy; all was quiet along the line of the Corps, although preparations were quietly going on; tents were struck, personal effects which had accumulated, were assorted, the greater part of which were cast aside; ammunition served, knapsacks packed and left on the ground to be taken in charge by the Quartermaster, haversacks filled, muskets loaded, but uncapped, bayonets fixed; the special orders read to each company, after which the commander reported that all was in readiness. At about eleven o’clock this regiment, with others of the Brigade, moved by the left flank to a point between Forts Fisher and Welch; passing over the breastworks, they silently moved to the position selected just in rear of the captured picket line, closed in mass, with their left resting on the right of the ravine before mentioned, the 1st and 3d Brigades taking position on its right while the 1st Division was placed on their right and rear, the 3d Division on their
(1)First Vermont Heavy Artillery, serving as infantry.
left and rear. Every officer was cautioned to observe the utmost silence, all orders were given in a whisper and passed along the line from one to another. After getting into position all were required to lie down and obtain as much rest as possible. While some of the troops on the right were moving into position, for some unknown cause the picket line in front commenced firing, thus drawing the fire of the enemy, and for a short time quite a fire from musketry was kept up. During the firing the brigade commander [Bvt. Major General Lewis A. Grant] was wounded in the head, a glancing shot cutting his felt hat, making a serious though not fatal wound. He was assisted from the field by an aid, the command falling upon the senior Colonel. Later in the day the General returned with head bandaged and assumed command.
For nearly four hours the troops lay upon their arms on the cold, damp ground, awaiting the time when the booming gun from Fort Fisher should signal them to charge, drive home that mighty wedge of humanity, strike to the very heart of the Confederacy and to the life blood of treason and rebellion. Who can adequately portray the suspense of those four long, waiting hours? the most trying of all to a soldier. Who can describe the dread of the coming morning light? Who can count the pulsations of those loyal hearts? Who can tell us of the longings to be spared to again meet loved ones? Whose kindly, listening ear, bent low to catch the fervent prayer? Even our Heavenly Father’s, the commander of all battles. Just before the first faint shadows of morning light appeared on the horizon, the startling roar of the signal gun on Fort Fisher announced that the time for action had come. A charge was to be made; a great blow was to be struck; as to the result great expectations were entertained, by officers of high grade as well as the rank and file.
A few brief moments, and 14,000 veteran soldiers, wearing the Greek cross4, closed in mass, stood in readiness for the assault. So far as known, the general, field and staff officers of the 2d Division went into the fight on foot, as it was almost impossible to advance over this ground and the enemy’s works while mounted. As yet the day had not come, darkness hung over them. The enemy, unconscious of danger, little realized that so soon would they be completely overwhelmed, captured or dispersed.
The 2d Brigade of the 2d Division had been selected to lead the charge; every man understood such to be the case; but few orders were given, and those in a whisper; guns were loaded, but uncapped, bayonets fixed. They quietly moved forward into the darkness, into the terrible fire, some into the shadow of death, many into the light of the coming day, and on, on to a grand and glorious victory, piercing the enemy’s line, rolling them back on the left and on the right, with a power that was resistless. No word was spoken, as they came upon and passed over the entrenched picket line; no sound broke the stillness until the enemy’s pickets, conscious of some power advancing upon them like a mighty ocean wave, with unbroken crest, delivered their fire and ran to cover in disorder. Then went up a shout from twenty-five hundred loyal hearts, taken up and repeated by the on-coming host. The charge was on! The leading brigade pressed forward on the line designated, unconsciously obliquing slightly to the left and into the ravine, not a man flinching, though many considered it a “forlorn hope.” Consternation seized the Confederates within their intrenchments; rushing to their guns a terrible fire of shot and shell, grape and canister, was soon pouring into the advancing columns, especially from the forts located on the right and
left of the ravine. Thick and fast came the cannon shot, thicker and faster came the bullets, when, for a moment, perhaps two, possibly ten, the charging column wavered, seemed to hesitate, the cannons’ flashes lit up the terrible scene, revealing the struggling mass as it swayed to the right and left, recovering from the first great shock of battle. Were they, of whom so much was expected, to fail? By one impulse every man sprang forward; the abatis along the front of the enemy’s works was reached, passages quickly made, the ditch crossed, the parapet scaled, while yet their batteries were firing and their infantry line unbroken. While advancing, all formations were broken, each man seemed determined to be in the lead, and, not unlike other instances, many claimed to have been the first to grapple with a Johnny in a hand-to-hand conflict. It has been conceded, however, that the “yellow flag” was among the first borne on to and over the enemy’s works. Again the boys renewed their love and admiration for their banner.
As the Union force passed over and into the enemy’s works, a hand-to-hand struggle took place; most desperately did the enemy defend their position, dealing blow for blow, fighting for, and over each gun, using the bayonet freely. Many instances of personal daring might be recorded. One may be mentioned. Capt. [Charles G.] Gould, of the 5th Vermont, gaining the parapet, the muzzle of a gun was placed against his breast, the weapon missed fire; when jumping into the works a bayonet was thrust through his face, for which the assailant received a wound, both falling to the ground, the Confederate killed, the Captain pulling the bayonet from the wound in his face; about this time a blow was dealt on his head with a sabre, and a bayonet pierced his back, making a severe wound. Feeling that he could do no more, and gaining the inner face of the parapet,
upon which his arms were placed, he had not strength to raise himself up out of the works. A sergeant of his company coming upon the works at this moment, seeing the helpless condition of the Captain, dropped his gun, grasped him by the arms to help him out of the works. A Confederate seeing this, caught the Captain from behind, when the sergeant seizing his musket dealt him a deadly blow, then lifting the Captain on to the works, both rolled into the ditch, where they were safe from bullets. How long this struggle continued it would be difficult to determine; it must have been of short duration, for the dawn of day found the enemy yielding this point, giving up that, being forced through and out of their camps. Finally, when resistance was useless, they broke, falling rapidly back a half mile, taking a position near the Boydton plank road. At this time all formations were broken throughout the division, yet with joyful hearts they pressed on, not waiting for the divisions on the right and left. After following a short distance a halt was ordered, that company and regimental formations might be made. One history informs us that Gen. A. P. Hill was killed near the Boydton plank road about this time, while riding from Gen. Lee’s headquarters, accompanied only by an orderly, in search of his shattered command; while another states that he was killed later in the day, in front of the 9th Corps on the right. At this time and place, an aid-de-camp, on the staff of the Major General commanding the division, rode up to the young officer before mentioned, saying: “Gen. Getty orders you to report to him at once.” “Sir?” exclaimed the officer. The aid replied, “Gen. Getty orders you to report to him at once.” “Captain, for what?” but the aid was galloping away, while the officer stood amazed to be thus summoned. What could it mean? What had he done? Had any order been disobeyed?
Had he not conscientiouslv and faithfully performed his duty? Had he failed to do all that was expected of him? For some unknown cause was he to be censured? These questions with many more flashed upon his mind while he thus stood immovable on the spot; then, realizing that the order was imperative, and must be obeyed, the Colonel was sought and informed of the order. That officer exclaimed, “My God, I cannot spare you.” “Colonel, the order must be obeyed,” was the reply. As the officer’s tearful eyes glanced along the partly formed line, never before had the old regiment seemed so dear to him, little did he realize that his last duty with it had been performed, that the companionship of nearly three years was severed.
With a heavy heart he obeyed the most unwelcome order received during the service. While passing to the rear in search of the General, a hundred questions crowded upon his mind, uppermost of which, was he, for some unknown cause to himself, to be censured? sent to the rear in disgrace? How vividly came before his mind the awful scenes through which he had passed, the assembling and anxious waiting, the silent advance, the mighty hurrah! followed by the charge; the terrible fire, the wavering line, the onward rush, scaling the works, the hand-to-hand struggle, the victory! Could it be possible that he had failed in the performance of his duties? Oh, no, that could not be; yet the thought was the burden on his heart. Was the sword he had taken so much pride in wearing, and which had been his companion at Spottsylvania, through the trying ordeal at Cold Harbor, at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek, to be taken from him in dishonor and disgrace on the battle field? These questions were unanswered as the General was approached. The officer halted, saluted, saying: “General, I was ordered to report to you.” The General returned the salute, then
said: “You are appointed as aid upon my staff.” The officer was amazed, and for some moments could not believe his senses, or realize the object for which he had been summoned; strangely, perhaps, such a thought had not entered his mind. As self-possession returned to him, it would be impossible to express the feelings of the heart, or acknowledge in fitting terms his thankfulness for the honor thus conferred. It seemed to him that he could jump out of his long legged boots, charge upon a battery or capture a regiment. How long he thus remained staring, not he, but other members of the staff might tell. The first words spoken were, “General, the horses are not yet brought up;” one of the orderlies was dismounted and the horse given to the officer, until his own should be received. Swinging into the saddle astride a strange horse the officer was ready for a new line of duty, though from the uniform he would hardly have been taken for an aid on the staff of a Major General.
A line of battle was formed at right angles with the Confederate works that had been carried by the assault; advancing to the left, capturing or dispersing everything before them. The enemy reversed their cannon in the intrenchments, pouring a heavy fire into the advancing line. It was most difficult to keep the line formed; the troops in their enthusiasm would break away in bodies of from ten to fifty, heedless of commands, charging this point or that, wherever the enemy attempted to make a stand. On the right a Captain, with twenty or thirty men following, charged upon a body of the enemy defending two field pieces, capturing the guns, ten officers, and sixty-two men. At another point a gun was captured, wheeled about, and the shot designed to check our advance went plunging into the ranks of those who a moment before had been its masters. A Major and Lieutenant with a few men
captured two guns, wheeled them about to fire but no primers could be found. The pieces were discharged by firing their muskets into the vent. These instances are historical facts. Thus the disorganized troops drove the enemy four miles until Hatcher’s Run was reached, when there were no more Confederates to capture or disperse, no more guns to take.
It was now about ten o’clock. Regiments and companies were re-formed, the victorious troops commenced their march towards Petersburg in parallel columns, passing along just behind the enemy’s works that had been a dread so many months. As the exultant veterans advanced along the works, passing the Red house, near where they had broken through in the early morning, their enthusiasm knew no bounds. When within about three miles of the city a heavy force of Confederates was seen forming to contest the further advance of the Federals. The 6th Corps was deployed, the 2d Division on the left with its right resting on the Boydton plank road. Batteries went into position on its right, replying to a heavy fire from the Confederate artillery. The troops of the division were partly protected from this fire by lying down just over the crest of a ridge. This artillery duel lasted for a short time, when the General ordered a charge. The newly-appointed aid was entrusted with the orders to the three Brigade commanders. To ride along the line amid that terrible storm of shot and shell seemed an impossibility, and live. He was now mounted on his own, faithful, fearless, sure-footed horse, so with a tight grasp on the rein, and a touch of the spur, horse and rider went on its mission. Arriving on the left it was found that a Brigade of the 1st Division was in line, with its left thrown back. At a glance it was apparent that the Brigade should move in conformity with the 2d Division,
but no orders had been given, no time should be lost; should he take the responsibility? The decision was quickly formed, and riding up to the commanding officer the order was given: “General, you will see that the 2d Division is to make a charge. Gen. Getty directs that you move your brigade in conformity with their movements.” Observing that the officer’s dress was not that of a staff officer, he replied, “who in h__l are you?” When informed, and seeing the necessity for prompt action, he gave the necessary orders for the advance. The charge was successful, the enemy was driven from his position, many prisoners taken as well as the battery in position near the Turnbull House, where had been Gen. Lee’s headquarters but a short time before. From this position the line was advanced with but slight opposition to within a mile of the city, when the weary, hungry troops sought the rest so much needed, having been under arms for twenty, and engaged in battle sixteen hours. Many brave men had fallen, many were suffering, many had shed their life’s blood in this last great battle of the war. It was a grand victory, and those who took part will ever remember with just pride the assault on the lines of Petersburg, April 2d, 1865.
As to the importance of the part taken by the 6th Corps, Gen. Grant wrote: “Gen. Wright penetrated the lines with his whole corps, sweeping everything before him, and to his left towards Hatcher’s Run, capturing many guns and several thousand prisoners.” In a speech to the 6th Corps, April 17th, 1865, when the Confederate flags, captured by the corps, were delivered to him, Gen. Meade said: “I do not wish to make any invidious distinction between your own and the other corps of this army, but candor compels me to say that, in my opinion, the decisive movement of this campaign which resulted in
the capture of the army of Northern Virginia was the gallant and successful charge of the 6th Corps on the morning of April 2d.” Said Gen. Humphrey, commander of the 2d Corps: “When the Confederate intrench- ments were carried by the 6th Corps on the morning of the 2d, Gen. Lee at once notified Mr. Jefferson Davis that he would be compelled to abandon his lines during the following night.” Gen. Wright in his report states: “The Corps had fought well, but never better than in the assault at Petersburg.” It is claimed that thirty-one guns, nine battle flags and twenty-one hundred prisoners were captured during the day by Getty’s Division. The loss of the corps was eleven hundred killed and wounded. What need for men to do more, what more could they accomplish? Weary and worn, they welcomed slumber’s quiet rest. The fight was over, the victory won. Lee had given the final orders for retreat. Jeff Davis was fleeing from Richmond. As the shadows of night fall upon the scene, among the thousands of weary veterans encircling the captured city, was the young officer, little dreaming that his brigade commander had decided to compliment him with the rank of Brevet Captain, unconscious that his Division commander was to confer upon him the honor of Brevet Major.
- Anson, Charles H. “Assault on the Lines of Petersburg, April 2, 1865.” War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 1, pp. 85-98 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Anson is describing the March 25, 1865 Battle of Fort Stedman. ↩
- Anson here describes the Sixth Corps’ portion of the heavy skirmish line fighting which occurred most of the day on March 25, 1865, following the Battle of Fort Stedman. Grant reasoned that Lee must have weakened portions of his lines to make the attack on Fort Stedman, and so ordered the Sixth Corps and Second Corps to aggressively challenge the Confederate picket lines south and southwest of Petersburg. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The corps badge of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac was the Greek cross. ↩