Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by researcher and author Kathryn Lerch, who generously donated a large collection of material on the 8th New York Heavy Artillery for use at The Siege of Petersburg Online.
Lieut. Joseph Willett of 8NYHA writes to the Republican Advocate on August 2, 1864 about operations around Petersburg (published Aug. 16, 1864)1:
From the 8th N. Y. Artillery
Camp Near Petersburg, VA.,
August 2d, 1864
Friend Waite:— Knowing that any news from this Regiment would at all times be interesting to its numerous friends, among many of whom the Advocate is circulated, I thought that a short sketch of our operations of late might be of interest to many of your readers.
You regular Correspondent, Lt. J. R. Cooper, while riding out a short time ago was thrown from his horse and severely injured. I think your readers will miss his full, glowing, and accurate description of our movements.
Nothing of interest transpired with our Regiment until the morning of the 26th ult., when the now familiar order came ‘Strike Tents’ and be ready to march at a moment’s notice. Soon all was in readiness to move. We were supplied with five day rations, and presumed that a long march was before us.
About four o’clock P.M. we ‘fell in,’ and moved from our Camp, taking the road toward City Point. This made many of the boys think they were going to take the Transports for Washington, and all left in good spirits.
Notwithstanding our heavy load of rations, we made a most rapid march, and before daylight we crossed the Appomatox and James rivers near Point of Rocks and Broadway Landing. It was by far the hardest march we ever had, hard as some of our previous marches had been. From the time we left Petersburg until daylight the next morning we had no regular rest—marching all night, and halting for the first time on the other side of the James, about four miles from ‘Malvern Hill.’
The boys, willing as always have been to do their best, could not endure this trial.— Their previous laborious duties had in a measure rendered them unfit for hard marching.— Many of them fell out. My Co. (L) had eight men and two Commissioned Officers, out of sixty-two when we completed the march. The other Companies of the Regiment in proportion.
After a short rest we crossed the River, ascended the bank, and there found a breast work had been thrown up, in which we took position. It now became evident for what we had come, for looking about half a mile ahead I saw a line of skirmishers advancing from the 1st Division, who had arrived in advance of us in the morning. They had not proceeded far before I would see the smoke curling in wreaths from their guns, and hear the rattle of musketry I knew there was game ahead, and I had not long to wait before I found where it was, for at that moment the cannon poured forth its shot and shell. At first I thought it was our own battery, for they were distant no more than half a mile—but in a moment our cannon opened upon the Rebel battery which soon undeceived me. Meanwhile our skirmishers kept advancing and point into the ‘Johnies’ their rapid fire.— The Rebels, forgetting their love for ‘las ditches,’ most ingloriously fled from the one they were on, and left in our hands four of the handsomest Parrot guns—twenty pounders—that I ever saw. So hasty was their retreat that they did not even take off their caissons, which were full of the finest kind of ammunition, and all fell into our hands, together with the whole of the first line of works.
The night before the Rebels here had driven back the troops of the 19th Corps, and counting on an easy victory in the morning, had advanced within half a mile of the river, right under the guns of our monitor and guns boat, and brought up their batteries and planted them there. Of course, they were ignorant of our arrival the night before, and when they saw the ‘trefoil’—the Badge of the 2d Corps—confront them they were completely surprised, and supposing they were ‘flanked’ thus fled precipitately from their intrenchments.
You recollect the last time we met the enemy they ‘flanked’ us and took four guns from us. Gen. Hancock was absent at the time, and upon his return issued an Order in which he said he hoped that the next time we met the enemy we would wipe out the stain and redeem our lost honor. This was the first time the boys had met the enemy since, and fully redeemed their lost honor, and took four guns of much more value than they lost. Gen. Meade published a congratulatory order, which you have probably seen.
Our men were now rapidly coming up and we were ready for a demonstration against the enemy, but we had to wait for the cavalry until nearly night, giving the Rebels a chance to fortify their new position. During the day, fourteen more guns were said to have been taken, but I only saw the four Parrot guns. We also took some prisoners here.
In the afternoon, we marched into the woods where we rested all night in full view of the Rebels who were fortifying upon a hill in front of us about a mile distant. In the morning we had the pleasure of witnessing the gunboats shell them. You would have laughed to have seen the Rebels leave their work when the gunboat fired about twice—they fled in perfect confusion. Indeed a gunboat shell is not pleasant visitor I assure you. The third shot from the boat struck right in their midst, and ‘to their speed added wings.’ Rebels captured afterwards in the day told me that shot killed one of their Generals, but I could not learn his name. Meanwhile our cavalry were going around in the rear of the Rebels, and before long we were ordered out to support them.— About noon we marched out, and in about an hour met the cavalry coming back with upwards of three hundred prisoners, and here and there a single soldier was bringing in one or more from every direction. We passed on out to the picket line where we remained until after dark.
The picket line enclosed most of the battle ground, and I had a fine opportunity to see the effects of the battle. At first our cavalry were surprised and driven back towards the brigade lying in a hollow concealed from the enemy. When the enemy followed up our flying cavalry, this brigade first encircled them by a flank movement, and poured into them a murderous fire from their fifteen shooters with which they were armed. One cornfield was literally covered with Rebels, lying in some places in heaps. The Rebels were completely routed and they left their dead and wounded on the field. Five stand of colors and many prisoners fell into our hands. The whole affair was one of success, but owing to the late arrival of the cavalry perhaps not as successful as was expected by our Generals. As it was, they boys felt that their long hard march had not been in vain—for the reward of our labor was in our possession.
At night we fell back to our old position on the river and rested. The next day we dug trenches as if we meant to advance on Richmond that way; and before night the reinforcements were pouring in for the Rebels, from Petersburg and probably Richmond. Having succeeded in diverting them from Petersburg, as soon as it was dark we packed our traps, and Hancock’s Racers were on the run for Petersburg to be there in time for the attack, which every one expected would take place the next morning. The march was quite as rapid returning as going. Six minutes an hour being allowed for rest—and it was impossible for those in the rear of the column to get that much. Before daylight we were again before Petersburg—that is all but those who were unable to keep up with the advance.
The account of the attack [battle of the Crater] on Petersburg your readers have probably read before this time. The attack commenced by blowing up two forts, and then charging the works.—These forts were the ones from whose parapets the Rebel guard used to ask our boys—‘When are you going to blow up this fort.’ The regiment in it was half buried. But the attack on Petersburg was a failure, and I fear that we are delayed at least a month longer. I am sorry to make this admission—but truth demands the acknowledgment. Two lines of works were captured, one soon lost, and when the colored troops relieved the 5th Corps they fled at the first charge of the Rebels, and all the advantage gained was lost. We lost some prisoners and took some. Probably the Rebels lost more heavily than our forces—as in their repeated charges upon the Fifth Corps they were terribly repulsed with great loss. Our Corps lay in reserve all day out of range, except from an occasional shot from the Rebels which did not harm. At night we marched to our old Camp that we occupied when we left for the James river—here we remain, but expect to move every day for some place. Our Corps I understand is broken up, the 3d Division being assigned to the 10th or 18th Corps. We are all surmising what will be done with us. A few days will probably develop the changes.
Just as the close of day on Saturday we received the painful intelligence that Capt. Sherwin was just alive. The next morning I rode down to City Point to see him if possible before he died. I was too late, for I found he was dead. His loss is deeply felt here among the officers of the Regiment and the men of his Company. Thus one after another pass away our brave companion in arms. Lieut. Cooper goes home with the body of Capt. Sherwin.—A kind and generous friend—a brave and efficient officer—the death of Capt. Sherwin casts a gloom over all who were acquainted with him.
But I must close this communication, as I fear is it already too long, an certainly much longer than I intended to make it when I commenced it. At some future time if any thing interesting occurs with this Regiment, I may write again.
Yours, truly, Joseph Willett, Lt. Co. L, 8th N.Y. Art.2