History of the Operations of the 55th P[ennsylvania].V[olunteers].
55TH P[ENNSYLVANI]A. VOL[UNTEER]S., FORT BURNHAM, Va.,
Nov. 22, 1864.
For the Bedford Inquirer:
Since everything is quiet, some account of our regiment [55th Pennsylvania] may be acceptable to you and your readers, as Bedford County is pretty well represented in it.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: A good portion of the first part of this letter recounts the 55th Pennsylvania’s role in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, which occurred just prior to the Siege of Petersburg. I’ve chosen to include it here due to the detailed recounting of the event and the scarcity of Army of the James accounts. I generally dislike linking to Wikipedia, but I have not found a better web site for the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.]
I shall accordingly commence with the opening of [the] campaign. Our regiment belonged to the 10th Corps, which was in the Department of the South until early last Spring [of 1864]. When Grant was commissioned Lieutenant General, this corps was brought to Ft. Monroe, forming part of Gen. Butler’s army-since called the “Army of the James”-which was destined to operate against Richmond from the south side of the James. The 4th of May  was fixed upon as the time for all the grand armies to move. On that day we embarked at Gloucester Point, sailed down the York River, passed Ft. Monroe, and continued our way up the winding James. We landed at Bermuda Hundred on the 6th [of May 1864] and pushed forward immediately. Having advanced several miles we halted for the night and commenced throwing up breastworks. We remain here until the 9th [of May, 1864]. Early on the morning of that day the whole command formed and took up the line of march toward the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which we reached about 10 0’clock without any opposition, and a party was immediately set tearing up the track. We again resumed the march toward Petersburg. Our division left the railroad and marched along the pike. About 2 o’clock the enemy was encountered near “Old Town Creek.” A lively skirmish continued for some time; the enemy held very tenaciously to a strip of woods that skirted both sides of the road. He was finally dislodged from this by an attack upon the flank. A brisk fight continued for about two hours, when the enemy fell back under cover of his entrenchments. Night came on, pickets were posted, and the troops, tired and hungry, partook of a little supper, consisting of “hard tack” and coffee, made in tin cups, then, spreading their gum blankets to protect them from the damp ground, wooed sweet Morpheus, who speedily came to the relief of the weary. The enemy made two attempts during the night to force the left of our line, but each time met with a bloody repulse. In this little affair our regiment lost considerably. 1
Next morning [May 10, 1864] it was ascertained that a force had gotten in our rear. We turned about to settle with this presuming party, but found that task well done when we arrived at the scene of action, though we marched as rapidly as circumstances would permit, the heat being oppressive. That night we marched into camp, and the remainder of the troops also returned. On the morning of the 12th [of May 1864] we again formed during a tremendous storm of rain. The elements seemed to be against us, for the rain fell in torrents. Long lines of troops marched past us, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and a fine representation of artillery. At length we received the word “forward” and marched off; this time towards Drury’s Bluff. It was ascertained that Beauregard had gone in that direction, as if he contemplated our design. Our line of march was the pike, along which a portion of the enemy passed that day. About 4 o’clock P.M., we came up with, and opened fire upon, the rear guard with the artillery. Night approached, and the rain, which ceased during the day, commenced again. Pickets were posted, and all the troops put in position to repel attacks, then we bivouacked on the open field. Everything at hand was made use of to protect them from the cold ground; the palings around the garden of a secesh farmer sharing the common fate.
A few slight alarms occurred during the night [of May 12-13, 1864], and at early dawn the troops were aroused from their slumbers, a hastily gotten breakfast was dispatched, and everything was ready to move onward. About 10 o’clock we heard the call “attention,” and moved slowly to the left. We struck the railroad, below “Half Way Station,” and halted. A reconnoitering party was sent up the road, which soon came in contact with the enemy’s pickets. Part of our regiment was deployed as skirmishers on both sides of the road, and a brisk fight ensued. The enemy held an earthwork on a bluff at the left of the road, from which he opened upon us with field pieces. Our artillery was put in position, and replied with interest. An attack was made in the rear at the same time, which caused him to abandon his position. Our troops immediately occupied the work, and shelled the retreating foe severely. He then made a stand at the right of the road, and opened upon us from a battery. An attempt was made to dislodge him from this position, and a brisk engagement was brought on, which continued till dark. Then the forces were withdrawn, and pickets posted. Our regiment had the fortune to perform part of this duty. The night was cold and damp, the men were weary, and all whose duty did not require them to keep on the alert, lay down to seek repose.
Next morning, the 13th [sic, 14th of May 1864], an early move was made. An incessant fire was kept up all day by the skirmishers, with a deafening roar of artillery, as numerous duels were fought with that arm. The enemy fell back about a mile. Next day [May 15, 1864], being Sunday, was pretty quiet. On the morning of the 16th [of May 1864] a heavy fog settled close to the earth, hiding everything from view. Our position here proving inconvenient to the enemy, he had collected his forces for the purpose of driving us back. The heavy fog was favorable to the attempt. Our lines were to be advanced at the same time, but the enemy took the lead. His masses were hurled upon the right which was compelled to give way, not, however, without inflicting severe loss upon the assailing column. The left was then attacked by overwhelming numbers, and was compelled to fall back also. Our regt. bore a conspicuous part in this engagement, losing heavily, especially in prisoners.2
Most of the regiment was upon the advance skirmish line, and could not see the approaching foe until the fog lifted. An order was sent to the 10th Corps, directing it to fall back early in the engagement, but did not reach its destination at the proper time, consequently a large number were captured who might otherwise have escaped-Lieut. Barnhart, Co. D, was killed; Capt. Filler, Co. K, Lieuts. Lynch, Co. A, O’Neill, Co. C, and Weaver, Co. G, were wounded. Lieut. Colonel Bennett and Lieut. Hodge, Co. C, were wounded and captured. Col. White, Capts. Fox, Co. A. Metzger, Co. C, Lieut. O’Connell, Co. C, Adjt. Mitchell and Asst. Surgeon Laurer, were all captured. The command devolved upon Capt. John C. Shearer. A stand was made a short distance from the field, and the enemy gave up pursuit. We marched back to our old position at Bermuda Hundred. Here the regt. participated in a number of picket fights, some approaching the magnitude of engagements. On the 19th [20th? of May 1864] the enemy attempted to force our line, but meeting a bloody repulse, he gave up the design.3
At length the movement to the north of the James was decided upon. On the 28th [of May 1864] we started to Bermuda Hundred. At this time a change was made in the organization of the troops. We were transferred from the 10th to the 18th Corps, 2nd Division, 1st Brigade. The brigade consisted of the 23d, 25th and 27th Massachusetts, 89th New York, 9th New Jersey and 55th Pennsylvania regiments, commanded by Gen. Stannard, as brave and good an officer as ever led troops. We embarked at Bermuda Hundred, and on the morning of the 30th [of May 1864] our regt. landed at West Point, and marched to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. On the 31st [of May] we drew an additional supply for our haversacks, and started for Cold Harbor. The march was a hard one. The route was strewn with haversacks, woolen blankets, and clothing of every description; the men becoming fatigued, threw away those articles to lighten their burden. About midnight we bivouacked along the road, having continued the march until it became necessary to halt and allow the troops to rest.4
Early on the 1st of June  the march was resumed. The day was very hot. In the afternoon we came up with the trains of the “Army of the Potomac.” Further on we came up with the 6th Corps. At length our ears were greeted by the thunder of artillery, which indicated what was going on in front. About five o’clock we heard the fire of the skirmishers, the engagement having commenced. We pushed rapidly forward. At dark the action ceased. The enemy lost heavily in prisoners. On the night of the 2d [of June 1864] the regt. was deployed along a road, amidst a drenching rain, for the purpose of protecting a wagon train, passing that way.
Early upon the 3d [of June 1864] we went on the “double-quick” across a cornfield. Our ranks were thinned with fearful rapidity, but the survivors seemed not to heed the loss of their comrades, so desperate was the conflict. Having gone far enough to accomplish the object of the move-the advance of the right to straighten the line-we halted, lay down, and opened a fire, that seemed to cool the ardor of the enemy, and held all the ground gained. This advance was made in five minutes, but proved fatal to many. The loss in enlisted men was 90, killed and wounded. Many were borne away with lacerated limbs from this, their last field, death having ended their sufferings. Capt. John A. Livingston, Co. H, and Lt. Heaney Adair, Co. F, were wounded. Lt. James H. Miller, Co. H, was wounded slightly, but did not leave the field.5
Capt. Shearer, while gallantly leading the regiment, was struck in the shoulder by a minie ball, and was compelled to leave the field. The command thus devolved upon Capt. J.S. Nesbit. This officer was nobly pressing forward, unconscious of the wound received by Capt. Shearer and his absence from the field. The troops continued to advance until ordered to fall back a short distance, and held the ground that had been gained. This was done in good order. Capt. Nesbit’s clothing was pierced by several balls, yet he was unhurt. As soon as he became aware that the command devolved upon him, he assumed control, and was giving directions to those around him, when he was severely wounded. Capt. Geo. H. Hill then took command. The enemy kept up a fire of musketry and artillery throughout the day, most however passing over us. Gen. Stannard received a musket ball in the leg, but did not leave the field until dark, when the brigade was relieved and marched into the intrenchments.
The regt. lost heavily in this engagement, being exposed to a galling fire from early in the morning until dark. We remained in the intrenchments until our troops abandoned Cold Harbor, which was done the 12th and 13th [of June 1864]. Our regt. was the last of the brigade to leave the pits, the General having selected it for the rear guard. At 2 o’clock A.M. the 13th, we quietly marched out of the intrenchments, and left the spot, which proved a final resting place for a number of our comrades.6
We marched to White House Landing, and that evening got aboard the steamer “Key Port” [sic,sidewheel steamer Keyport]. The evening of the 14th [of June 1864] we landed at Point of Rocks, on the north side of the Appomattox, drew rations, and were ordered to be ready to march at 2 o’clock A.M. next day. Early on the 15th [of June 1864] we were on our way toward Petersburg. The enemy’s pickets were encountered about 12 o’clock and driven in. We pushed forward and soon found ourselves in front of a strong work, upon a high bluff, from which a fire of grape and cannister was spewed upon us. The troops upon our left had more of a circuit to perform, and were not yet up to cooperate with us against these works. Accordingly we halted and awaited the arrival of Brooks’ (1st) Division). Gen. Martindale commanded ours. The enemy kept up an irregular fire all day, doing some damage, but his practice was poor, many shots falling far off the mark: this was greatly in our favor. About four o’clock everything was ready for another attack, the troops upon the left having swung around, and batteries were put in position. Suddenly our batteries opened a fire which seemed to shake the ground, keeping up a continuous roar, which, echoing and re-echoing among the hills and valleys, made doleful music for the deluded followers of the Southern Star. This was more than the “chivalry” could stand, and they began to leave their works. Two lines of infantry were immediately pushed forward, and they went with a yell after the retreating foe. The polished steel, glittering in the rays of the setting sun (for the day was beautiful) furnished a sight that would do honor to the pen and pencil.7
At 5 o’clock the next day (16th) [June 16, 1864] another attack was made and the pickets were used as skirmishers. The captured works were greatly strengthened, and artillery placed in them. Fire opened from these and soon silenced a battery which proved a little annoying during the day. The smoke of the guns settled close to the earth, thus rather prematurely obscuring the light of day and scenting the air with the villainous sulphur. Amid this deafening roar the infantry advanced; common conversation could not be heard, and commands had to be given in a boisterous tone to make them audible. Capt. G[eorge] H. Hill, as brave an officer as ever trod upon a battlefield, commanded the regiment. We were ordered to “go forward and engage the enemy.” As we advanced we could see the foe awaiting us. We advanced quite close to his position, and he opened fire on us. We took cover and opened simultaneously. A heavy fire was kept up by both parties long after nightfall. The object of the advance being accomplished we were ordered to withdraw. This was not accomplished without loss. Besides those who were killed upon the field, many of our comrades who were wounded there, have since “gone to that bourne from whence no traveler returns.” We marched back to the rear and enjoyed one day’s rest.8
On the morning of the 18th [of June, 1864] we started toward the scene of our former operations, to do another hard day’s work, without anything to appease the appetite, having been without food nearly forty-eight hours previous. But hunger on some occasions seems a stimulus to exertion. Marching and counter marching were the principal operations during the early part of the day. But at length it came to our turn to go further forward. Advantage was taken of a couple of deep ravines. In one of these we formed for the chef d’ oeuvre9. With our right resting on the Appomattox, we advanced over a bluff that hid us from the enemy. As soon as we reached the top, a heavy fire of musketry was opened upon us. Simultaneously we were ordered forward, and we swept across a cornfield that only a few days previously was an interesting object to the tiller of the soil. At dark we halted. Two powerful works were wrested from the enemy, some prisoners and eighteen pieces of artillery remained in our hands as trophies of the day’s work. Lt. Bloomhall, Co. B, and Lt. Shorb, Co. G, were wounded. The loss, however, this day was not very heavy. It fell upon our brigade to do the picketing that night, thus being obliged to keep on the alert, we found that we need not expect the coveted and much needed repose night generally affords: but weary watching and marching the two previous nights, we prepared for another wakeful tour of duty.10
Shortly after this engagement Gen. [George J.] Stannard was put in command of the 1st Division [of the 18th Corps, or 1/XVIII/AotJ. Keep in mind, however, that the 55th Pennsylvania was in the Second Division of the 18th Corps at Petersburg up through the time this letter was written.]. The remainder of the time we were in front of Petersburg, the duties were arduous. An incessant fire was kept up by both parties, upon the skirmish lines. Night and day missiles of larger dimensions were thrown from field pieces and mortars. The 18th Corps was present in reserve at the springing of the mine, the 30th of July11, in front of the 9th Corps. On the 25th of August  we were relieved by the 10th Corps, and came to the north side of the Appomattox, encamped near the spot we occupied upon first arriving here in May, at the location indefinitely termed “near Bermuda Hundred.” Here we enjoyed a short season of rest. The brigade was changed while here [in early to mid-September 1864]. The three Massachusetts regiments and the 9th New Jersey went to North Carolina, thus leaving our regt. alone-the 89th New York was taken out some time before.12
After the enemy made the raid upon Union livestock13, our regt. again went to the south side of the Appomattox, to guard against any further incursions of the kind. On the 28th of Sept.  we returned to the north side, and commenced fitting up our camp. Here the 148th [New York] and 158th New York Vols. were brigaded with us: Colonel, since Brevet Brig. Gen. J. Jourdan, of the 158th, commanding. Orders came to be ready to march at 2 o’clock, A.M., the 29th [of September 1864].
At the appointed time [on September 29, 1864] the line was formed, and the troops marched towards the James. Capt. [George H.] Hill commanded the regiment. This was a fatal day to many, but the survivors won a lasting wreath of glory. Pontoons were thrown across the [James] river during the night, below Aiken’s Landing, and at daylight the troops crossed. The enemy’s pickets were encountered a short distance from the river, driven in and some prisoners captured. We came in front of, and received the fire of Fort Harrison. The 1st, Stannard’s division [1/XVIII/AotJ], charged this in front, our division, Heckman’s [2/XVIII/AotJ], operating on the flank. The enemy gave way before this vigorous charge, and our troops triumphantly entered his vacated works.14
Beyond the line already captured was another, consisting of strong redoubts, and fortifications, connected by breastworks. It was desirable that this line should be captured. One Regiment, the 2d P[ennsylvani]a. [Heavy] Artillery, gallantly charged these works, and were most all captured.15 The enemy was assisted in this day’s operations by the gunboats on the James, which threw shell of mammoth dimensions, but doing comparatively little damage, in proportion to the metal thrown. About 3 o’clock P.M. we were ordered to be ready to move forward at a moment’s notice. About 4 o’clock, Col. Jourdan rode up to Capt. Hill and said, “Capt., I want your regiment to charge that work and take it.” Sufficient support was to be at hand to enable us to hold the works if entered.
The regiment advanced slowly, at first, then fixing bayonets, started off “double-quick.” The enemy held his fire until it came in good range, and opened. Shell went howling through the air; grape and cannister were poured in among us, as fast as the enemy could load and fire his pieces. Such a tremendous fire could not be received without having a telling effect. The ranks were thinned with fearful rapidity; undaunted the line swept onward under the concentrated fire of three batteries now so close that the features of the men at the guns could be distinctly seen, every charge could be heard rammed home, and the word “fire” heard at every discharge.
When within fifty yards of the works the regiment halted. This was done to wait the proffered support, but it was soon ascertained that no assistance was to be expected from it. Here the prize that was almost within our grasp, had to be given up, for the ranks were so thinned that the remainder could not sustain the unequal strife, then the enemy sallied out, doubtless, with the intention of capturing the little band. Seeing no assistance at hand, the regiment marched off by the “left oblique,” under cover of a strip of woods. The effort was not, upon the whole, crowned with success, because the number of the assailants was not sufficient to accomplish the task.16
The wounded not able to leave the field were captured. The color-bearer, Augustin Flanigan, fell while boldly advancing the colors. Sergt. Hammer, now Lt. Hammer of Co. K, seized them as they fell from the hands of his wounded comrade, and nobly bore them from the field. Lt. Adair, Co. H, was killed, Capt. O’Neill, Co. I, was wounded and captured, since paroled, Capt. Hill was wounded in the hip, but refused to leave the field. The operations closed at night.
Next day [September 30, 1864] the enemy made two unsuccessful attempts to retake the works but met with a bloody repulse each time. Our regiment is now in the Fort, but since it was entered by its present occupants, the name has been changed to Ft. Burnham. When our regiment started in the campaign it was 1400 strong, but now it reports only 373 for duty. Thinking I have already exceeded the proper limit, I will close. At present, all is quiet.
SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Roy Gustrowsky.
If you are interested in helping us transcribe newspaper articles like the one above, please CONTACT US.
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the May 9, 1864 Battle of Swift Creek during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the May 16, 1864 Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, the largest and decisive battle of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. After Drewry’s Bluff, Butler’s Army of the James retired into the entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred, where they would ultimately remain until Petersburg fell on April 2, 1865. To their credit, the Army of the James did make some large attacks north of the James River which gained quite a bit of ground during the Siege of Petersburg, especially on September 29, 1864 at the Battles of New Market Heights and Fort Harrison. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I suspect this is the May 20, 1864 Battle of Ware Bottom Church. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 18th Corps under Baldy Smith was reinforced by some regiments of the 10th Corps, including the 55th Pennsylvania, and sent to reinforce the Army of the Potomac at Cold Harbor. As noted above, they sailed to West Point Landing on the York River before marching east to Cold Harbor. West Point had become a supply depot for the Union army by this point in the Overland Campaign. ↩
- SOPO editor’s Note: This was, of course, the deadly assault at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the start of the movement to cross the James and the Siege of Petersburg. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 55th Pennsylvania and the 18th Corps participated in the June 15-18, 1864 Second Battle of Petersburg, and on this first day of the battle, June 15, 1864, they were a one corps show. Baldy Smith missed a golden opportunity to take Petersburg outright and avoid a siege. But he hesitated, and the opportunity was lost. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: June 16, 1864 was the second day of the Second Battle of Petersburg. The main attacks were made by the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, though the Eighteenth Corps was also involved, as you can see by the above paragraph. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: French for a masterpiece. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: June 18, 1864 was the fourth and last day of the Second Battle of Petersburg. Meade’s forces probed cautiously forward after the Confederates under Pierre G. T. Beauregard retired back a few hundred yards from their previous works, finally digging in after finding them. A siege had begun. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 18th Corps was present on the right of the Ninth Corps during the July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater, but as noted, did not directly participate. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 55th Pennsylvania and the regiments named in this paragraph belonged to 1/2/XVIII/AotJ. The three Massachusetts regiments were worn out and shells of their former selves. If you take a look at my pages for the 23rd Massachusetts, 25th Massachusetts, and 27th Massachusetts as well as the 9th New Jersey, you quickly see they were sent to North Carolina for duty there. The 23rd and 25th Massachusetts moved to New Bern, NC from September 4-10, 1864. The 27th Massachusetts and the 9th New Jersey moved to Carolina City, NC from September 17-21, 1864. The 89th New York had transferred to 3/2/XVIII/AotJ on June 24, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was Hampton’s Beefsteak Raid of September 14-17, 1864, in which he went around the rear of the entire Union Army and stole thousands of cattle from the Union cavalry guarding them near the James River at Coggin’s Point. Hampton successfully moved the herd back to Confederate lines while fighting off Union cavalry chasing him. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This paragraph and several below describe the September 29-30, 1864 Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, or Battle of Fort Harrison. As the letter writer describes, the 18th Corps of the Army of the James crossed north of the James River on the night of September 28-29, 1864, and surprised the Confederates with a vigorous offensive on September 29. The 10th Corps of the Army of the James crossed the James further east at Deep Bottom and attacked the Confederate entrenchments on New Market Heights. These attacks resulted in the capture of Fort Harrison and portions of the Confederate works near Chaffin’s Bluff. Robert E. Lee himself came to supervise the counterattack on September 30, 1864, so important was Fort Harrison. But the Confederate counterattack failed amidst confusion between division commanders, and Fort Harrison was secured for the Union. It would soon be renamed Fort Burnham. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: In looking over the maps on pages 71 and 83 and the text from pages 66-70 of Richard Sommers’ 2nd Edition of Richmond Redeemed, it appears the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery assaulted in the Confederate Outer Line in the vicinity of Battery #11 towards Fort Johnson. Since this was a heavy artillery regiment, it was divided into three battalions. One of those three battalions was captured en masse in front of Fort Johnson, though the other two escaped. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: In looking over the map on page 83 and the text from pages 91-92 of Richard Sommers’ 2nd Edition of Richmond Redeemed, the 55th Pennsylvania and other parts of Jourdan’s Brigade assaulted the Confederate works on the Intermediate Line near the Mill Road, probably Fort Gregg (NOT the famous Fort Gregg defending Petersburg), which was just south of the larger Fort Gilmer. These attacks ultimately failed, and the Union forces retreated back to the Confederate Outer Line and Fort Harrison. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I have been unable to determine the identity of “Occasional.” If you know who this is, please CONTACT US. ↩
- “Army Correspondence.” The Bedford Inquirer (Bedford, PA), December 9, 1864, p.1, c.4 to 6. ↩