The Repulse at Petersburg-The Negroes Defended-Officers Responsible for the Failure.
HEADQUARTERS COM. I, 21st PENN’A. CAVALRY.
ARMY POTOMAC, August [4th?], 1864.
MR. EDITOR: The anxious friends at home, who so wistfully look for good news from our army, and who eagerly grasp the papers and scan their pages to learn of the weal or woe of the men who stand in front to oppose and conquer the foe, have been, as we soldiers believe, most seriously imposed upon by the statements given by some of the papers, of the battles in front of Petersburg, July 30th, 1864.1
We have also anxiously seized those papers, and eagerly read what was related, by those who knew but little from hearing, and nothing by observation or experience-I mean newspaper reporters. Our boys had a hearty laugh over the graphic description given of the great victory before Petersburg, on the above date, but were completely disgusted with the erroneous account which soon followed of a great loss, and the defeat of our army. Now we would inform the anxious public that all the reports we have seen in the papers relating to that affair were far from being correct, knowing what we speak to be so-for we were there during the action, and engaged in it.
1.We did not gain a great victory.
2.We did not suffer a great defeat.
3.The cowardice of the negro troops was not the cause of our repulse.
4.What we had gained.
We did not gain a great victory as we did not hold the position we took, and the taking of which cost us considerable in time and men; but we did gain a victory in that we did give the enemy to understand that there is a power in the Northern army which they never dreamed of, and that if we can neither go over or round their forts, we will go under them.2 The fire opened upon the rebel works was the most fearful, rapid and destructive they ever experienced, and silenced their works in less than one hour; so that the men abandoned their guns and we could see the infantry driving them back to their pieces at the point of the bayonet. We saw the most effective of their guns in our front blown out of their works by our well-directed fire, and the fort almost demolished. We saw our shells drop into their works rapidly and could see them carrying away their dead and wounded all day Sunday [July 31, 1864] and Monday [August 1, 1864]. We saw their best and most powerful fort blown into the air and every soul in that fort destroyed; and although they drove our men out of it, they have not been able to place a single gun in position there since, and are yet engaged in excavating those buried by the blowing up of the fort. We have seen four white flags floating over their ruins requesting us not to fire on them until they searched for their dead, and not one shot has been fired from any of their guns in our front, since last Saturday [July 30, 1864]; and we soldiers feel confident that if things had been managed a little better by officers in immediate command, our army would be tonight in Petersburg.
Again, the negroes are not to blame for not holding the works taken. We know something about those negroes.3 They were kept digging in the trenches until the action commenced; the greater portion of them had never been in action before; some of them had to march one-half mile from the river on a double-quick and then charge without halting. The Col. that led them, commanded them after they got in the fort, to uncap their guns. It is reported that another Colonel ran about two miles back followed by the “smoked Yankees,” who went forward or back just as their leaders happened to lead the way. The colored troops are loud in disclaiming the conduct of their officers and we feel that they (the officers) are the persons to blame, all reports to the contrary notwithstanding.
If you could march, as I have done, over the field of battle and gaze upon the dead, you would lift up your hands in sorrow at the dreadful scene, and cry shame on those who will not render just praise due to them who there offered up their lives for their country. I cannot describe the awful sickening scene, of the dead, the dying and the wounded as they lay on that field, but suffice it to say, that they lay close to and upon the breastworks of the enemy, and not one white man did I see among them. The large number of negro dead should silence forever the mouths of those who kept themselves far back out of harm’s way, and who say that the cowardly conduct of “the niggers” was the cause of the disaster. The army is in good spirits, and although a little disappointed at the result of Saturday’s operations, but confident that what we failed to accomplish that day, will be fully completed at a time not far distant.
We feel sorry that property has been destroyed in Chambersburg Pa.4, but I know I express the declared[?] sentiments of this army when I say that when the people of as large a town as Chambersburg will allow, without making an effort to defend themselves, two hundred and fifty rebels to come and set fire to their dwellings, they are entitled to but little sympathy; and I know they have none from this army. Our soldiers down here feel that rebel raiders are the best recruiting officers we could send North. I will close in the words of a schoolmaster to a parent who complained to him of the conduct of his children at home: “Do you keep your children in order at home and depend upon it I will keep them in awe of me at school.” Do you at home in the North take care of the rebs when they come up there, and rest assured we will take care of them down here. [1st Lt.] M[artin]. P. D[oyle]5.6
SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Roy Gustrowsky.
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- SOPO Editor’s Note: The author is discussing the July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 48th Pennsylvania dug a tunnel underneath a Confederate salient and blew it up in the early morning hours of July 30, and tunneling or “mining” as it was called was at the forefront of everyone’s minds in July and August 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Ferrero’s Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac (4/IX/AotP) was the only division of United States Colored Troops in the entire Army of the Potomac. The 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (acting as infantry at this time) was in the Union Fifth Corps just to the left of Ninth Corps in the Union line, and had watched the USCT Division from up close during the Battle of the Crater. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: On July 30, 1864, the same day the Battle of the Crater raged in Virginia, Confederates on Jubal Early’s raid burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: A quick glance at the roster of Company I, 21st PA Cavalry showed the author must have certainly been 1st Lt. Martin P. Doyle. Doyle was “wounded at Cold Harbor, Va., June 3, and at Boydton Plank Road, October 27, 1864. He resigned January 11, 1865.” ↩
- “Army Correspondence.” The Bedford Inquirer, August 19, 1864, p. 1, col. 5-6 ↩