Editor’s Note: This letter to the Sunday Mercury appears here due to Bill Styple’s fantastic book Writing and Fighting the Civil War, which is where I first learned about these amazing soldier letters. You can purchase a copy of Writing and Fighting the Civil War at Belle Grove Publishing.
From an Old Soldier.
[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]
WASHINGTON, D. C., August 5, 1864.
The Ruined Fort—Bad Management—Cowardly Officers of Colored Troops—Paid Off—A File for Home—Hitting our Transports.
I have just returned from the front. The fighting was going on at the time I set out from City Point, and I accordingly had somewhat of a view. After all was over, Captain [Henry H.] Winstanley1 took me around and showed me the line of breastworks, and the ruins of the fort just blown up, in which there were a body of Rebels destroyed. 2 Through some bad management or treachery, the position which had been gained was lost again. Talking to the men in the trenches, they informed me that, after the fort was blown up, and our mortars and guns opened upon the Rebel batteries, the fortifications were deserted completely in front of the Fifth Corps, and some of our men almost cried because they could not get the order to advance and occupy them. The colored troops fought well, but it is said that many of the officers in command over them acted cowardly. I saw one of our mortar-shells in front of the Second Maine3—a one-hundred-pounder that did not burst. The Rebel and Union fortifications are very close to each other. The pickets of each contending army are within a very few feet—in fact, they sit and talk to each other; get water from the same spring, and are very agreeable, giving each other warning, or else shooting over each others’ head until each can get away for a fair show. All speak well of the action of the colored troops, and say they could have gone into Petersburg if the Fifth and Tenth Corps had been allowed to support them. On my return home from the Fifth [New York Veteran Infantry], the boys just being paid off, I bring nearly $3,000 in money to their friends. I think that is doing well out of less than two hundred men remaining of the Brooklyn Fourteenth, transferred to the Fifth N[ew]. Y[ork]. V[eteran]. V[olunteer]. Inf[antry].4 There was considerable whisky in the camp, which created some pugnacity among the Fifth, or what the Fourteenth [Brooklyn, aka the 84th New York] portion call the “Chinese” portion of the Fifth. Not one, I am glad to say, of the Fourteenth portion showed anything from the effects of liquor. All without exception, take a pride in the remembrance of the old regiment (the Fourteenth Brooklyn). The officers of the Fifth are very much pleased with the conduct of the men of the Fourteenth transferred to the Fifth; and seem also well pleased with the new officers, Captains Winstanley and York, and Lieutenants Taylor and Osborn (Lieutenant Brown being a prisoner, Lieutenant Rich killed on the 18th ult. [July 18, 1864]) I felt sorry to leave the boys, when I thought how I had parted before and how many were killed or badly wounded since—though so short a time since. They are all in good spirits and patriotic; willing to undergo, without a murmur, all the hardships, in the hope of a speedy close to the war. To see the men in the broiling sun, working on these gigantic fortifications, and suffer as they do, and still cheerful, it makes me ask what cause any of us at home have of complaint?
Yesterday morning [August 4, 1864], we left City Point, on the John Brooks; and when about three or four miles down the river, we all at once saw the shells bursting. The Rebs had a battery planted and was shelling the S. R. Spaulding. The John Brooks halted and blew her whistle, after which one of the Rebel guns was opened on us. We fortunately did not get struck, though several shots came very near, passing just over the bow of the vessel. The S. R. Spaulding was not so fortunate. She got one right through the wheelhouse, which killed five horses and did some other damage. I could not learn whether any human beings were hurt.5
Yours, etc., J. J.6
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Given the later mentions that the writer visited the 5th New York Veteran Infantry, a quick look at the roster confirms that there was indeed a Captain Henry H. Winstanley in Company G of the regiment. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Given the date of this letter and the reference to the “fort just blown up,” the author is almost certainly referring to the July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The Second Maine infantry was not at the Siege of Petersburg. The writer might mean the 2nd Maine Battery, which was in the Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac, the next Corps over from the Fifth Corps. However, artillery was often placed all along the line, with batteries potentially not necessarily within the limits of the line held by the infantry in their corps. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The Fourteenth Brooklyn, also known as the 84th New York, had ceased to exist when its veterans whose enlistments were up mustered out on May 25, 1864. The remaining men were transferred to the 5th New York Veteran just a few weeks before the Siege of Petersburg. These men maintained their own identity, as you can readily see by this letter. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This is an exciting find for me. It adds details to an otherwise little discussed naval skirmish on August 4, 1864, known as the Action near Harrison’s Landing. Charles W. Fry’s Richmond Orange Virginia Artillery was harassing Union shipping in the James River, in this case firing on the army transports John Brooks and S. R. Spaulding. This irritation caused the U. S. Navy to send the U.S.S. Miami and the U.S.S. Osceola. When they arrived on the scene, Fry’s Confederate artillerymen promptly limbered up and fled as quickly as they had come. They would return to New Market Heights the next day. ↩
- “From an Old Soldier.” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). August 7, 1864, p. 7 col. 1- 2 ↩