Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Bryce Suderow and is included in a collection of articles from the New York Daily News. His transcription of this article is published here with his written permission.
Army of the Potomac
June 18 – Evening
Petersburg is invested by a semi-circle of earthworks and a strong and stubborn army. It is defended by similar works, and men whose courage and qualities have been tested and proved. Of its ultimate fall no doubt is entertained by the soldiers investing it, but it can stand a protracted siege, and when it falls Richmond still stands defiantly before us.
Our success at Spottsylvania, at Hanover, and on the Chickahominy were similar to the success we have obtained at Petersburg, but our army did not take ether of these places. It fought well, but the Confederates were equal to the task of holding the lines they wanted to hold; and brain, not bullets, was needed to force them out of the way.
Strategy forced them from the road in one place, but they unexpectedly dropped into it at another. Strategy brought both armies from the Rapidan to the Chickahominy. Bullets did not accomplish much there, so strategy again stepped in and carried both across the James, landing them on the Appomattox. The virtue of muscle and bullets was again tried, and you know the result.
We have no braver general than Hancock; no braver soldiers than those commanded by him. They have done more fighting since the campaign opened than any other corps in the army, and all their work was well done. The First Division is a noble one, and it has had noble leaders, Sumner, Richardson, Hancock! Under such teachers it must learn much, else it would be dull indeed. Yet with so bright a record, it cannot always succeed. It was thrown against fire and death at Coal Harbor. It carried the works there, carried them bravely and at a fearful price, but could not hold them. It attempted to carry the works at Petersburg and failed.
It was 6 o’clock when this division, now commanded by General Barlow, was ordered to charge the enemy’s works. To reach them, the command must traverse an exposed slope of 500 yards. The ground was covered with stumps and tangled brush. The works were on the ridge above. They consisted of a line of earthworks with redoubts at the angles. The embrasures contained guns that swept every foot of the slope and plain below. It was across this plain, through the tangled brush, and up this fire-swept slope that Barlow’s men were ordered to charge. And they must charge without firing. When soldiers can return shot for shot and blow for blow danger loses half its terror; men must be brave as devils to push through a hail of bullets and shrapnel and not return a shot. But Barlow’s men rushed against the storm, and hundreds of them fell and were passed by their comrades. They almost reached the works on the crest, while the flames from cannon and muskets darted out against them, bright and red as the setting sun.
They staggered and fell back, and the rebels held their ground. The brave First Division lay under the guns until morning. Next day Burnside’s corps was at hand. He had arrived and taken position on Hancock’s left. In the evening one division of the IX and a portion of Barlow’s division charged the same works. This time the weight was irresistible. The works were taken and some guns and prisoners.
The men fought well everywhere. Burnside and Barlow broke through the enemy’s center. In advancing they were exposed to an enfilading fire from all the forts and redoubts. The ground behind them was strewn with dead and wounded. More than a thousand fell, but the works were taken, and the enemy had to retire on right and left. They had to retire, but not to retreat. No, they had still stronger works beyond, and back to these they went. There they now stand and cut our men down in hundreds when they attempt to charge.
In the morning an attempt was made to carry this line, but it failed. The loss was very severe. The enemy’s guns swept every approach, and their wearied men had been replaced with fresh troops. At half past five this evening another attempt was made, but the works were not carried. All last night and today the din and rattle of musketry resounded from left to right but its heaviest part was in front of Burnside and Hancock. During the night one brigade of Birney’s division was entrapped. They charged silently down a slope, across a ravine at the bottom, and half-way up the slope beyond. A rebel fort was on the crest above, and rifle pits for sharpshooters were all around.
To advance against the fort would be destructive to all. Many fell before the deadly rifles of the sharpshooters. To return would be as bad, for the enemy had discovered their presence, and would not allow them to go back in peace. The slope they had descended by was directly under the embrasures of the fort, so they had to lie flat on the ground all night, and when a force went to their relief in the morning, they found the fort abandoned.
The V Corps on the left gained some ground this evening. A portion of the VI Corps has arrived and taken position. The troops are all trustful and confident. The Confederates are firm and defiant. Their position is one of great strength. Their works are fully manned, and they have a great army behind the Appomattox.
General Hancock has suffered greatly from his old wound. He must seek rest. He was relieved today by General Birney.
There has been some suffering for want of rations. The advance on Petersburg was so rapid that the supply trains could not come up in time. But they have arrived with full supplies, and the men are now ready for the next struggle.
The Confederates hold the railroad. Troops have been rushed into Petersburg by thousands. Lee is said to have taken command.
General Grant’s headquarters are at City Point. Aids and orderlies ride by day and night with reports and orders to and from different parts of the line. The right wing rests on the Appomattox, a few miles from City Point; the line then curves around Petersburg, until the left rests about five miles beyond the town. Guns are posted on every available crest, ready to open on the town whenever the order is given. But it is useless to open fire there until the rebels are driven from their works in our front.
The navigation of the James is not quite so free as could be desired. Rebel batteries are becoming rather troublesome there, but they have not done any damage yet. A portion of Wilson’s cavalry division is engaged scouring the Peninsula and watching the enemy there.
No official report of the losses has yet been made, but they are greater than at first supposed. Since the army crossed the James I think we have lost near five thousand men. This loss was sustained by the II, IX and XVIII corps. All day ambulances and stretchers have been conveying the wounded from the front, and all night by the light of a full moon the living were burying the dead. It is horrible work, but the end is not yet.
- “Army of the Potomac,” New York Daily News, June 23, 1864, p. 1 col. 2-3 ↩