Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
QUICK ADVANCE SAVED BELEAGUERED PETERSBURG
Johnson’s Division, Rushed From Howlett Line, Supported Local Home Guard and Drove Back Advancing Federals.
BY “THIRTY-FOURTH VIRGINA.”
The night after the battle of Clay’s Farm will ever be remembered by members of the old Thirty-fourth [Virginia] on account of an experience we had. Soon after nightfall, and before we had finished our meagre repast of hardtack and fat bacon, we were called upon to go with a detail to erect a redoubt on the brink of a hill, to the left of our line, where a battery of artillery had been posted during the day and had done some execution. Although there was no firing going on when we went to work, the enemy had gotten the exact range, and took it for granted that we would be at work, therefore they opened fire on us with shell and mortars. Every shell—and there was a perfect tornado of them—seemed to fall and explode right in the midst of our group.
Our boys, the artillerists, opened up in reply and with equal rapidity. It was awful. The dirt was flying in every direction, ammuition chests were exploding with terrific jars, caissons were being knocked into a thousand pieces, cannon were being disabled, men were groaning and dying. We did not even have the bracing excitement of being ourselves engaged, but had to stand there and see the duel go on. I do not remember what command of artillery on our side it was, but I do remember that they were game fighters, and that they stood to their guns and handled them with great skill and dexterity. The flame from the guns and bursting shells made a weird light in the midst of darkness, so that the high bristling parapets of the enemy could be seen as well as those on our side. When the enemy found at length what it was costing them to disturb this working party they ceased firing, and there was a perfect calm for the balance of the night.
From this time our position on the Howlett line was secure, and Butler’s army lay in front of us, apparently content to be allowed to hold his position. Thus the two armies watched each other during the remaining days of the spring and summer of 1864. We occupied many positions on the line, which had been heavily intrenched during the last half of May and first half of June. The weather was warm, with alternations of hot suns and rain and mud. Quiet prevailed for the most part, and rations, now reduced to half and sometimes less, consisted solely in fat bacon and stale “hardtack.”1
The Attack on Petersburg.
On the afternoon of June 15  we received hurry orders to move out of the trenches. Immediately in four ranks double file we headed for Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike, which lay parallel with the Howlett line, a few rods to the rear. Striking this road we turned southward, bound for Petersburg, marching in quick time, every man being required to keep his place. Everything betokened an important move, though we had not yet learned what the matter at the Cockade City was.
The heat was intense and the dust was stifling, but on we pushed. In an incredibly short time we swung into Petersburg, only to find the city in a tremendous uproar of excitement. A Federal division of cavalry supported by infantry and artillery having crossed the James, and Appomattox, had swung around the city, and approaching it from the southeast, had pushed forward to capture the town, which was of itself a critical point of the Confederate defenses, guarding the main railroad communications between the South and the Confederate capital.
But this strong column of invaders had been met on the outskirts of the city by the local militia, about a regiment, composed of schoolboys, clerks in the stores and old men armed with all kinds of weapons. This regiment was commanded by a distinguished civilian, Colonel Archer, who by placing his one piece of artillery on a high mound on which stood the City Reservoir—thought by the enemy to be a fort—made a determined stand with his little line of amateur infantry and repulsed the enemy with heavy losses on both sides.2
Heroism of Petersburg Home Guards.
There was perhaps not a more brilliant display of gallantry during the entire war than Archer’s victory on that hot June day [June 9, 1865]. It saved Petersburg, the loss of which would have meant the flanking of Lee’s army, then still north of the James. Success to the Federals would almost certainly have resulted in the fall of Richmond.
But this defeat [on June 9, 1864] and retreat of the Federal vanguard only resulted in their falling to the Appomattox River, where they were joined by Grant’s teeming thousands, who had crossed and were crossing to the south of the James and Appomattox. Such, then, was the military situation when we arrived in Petersburg. The Yankees had perhaps 20,000 men south of the Appomattox, and were being rapidly reinforced. They had established their right on the River Appomattox and were rapidly extending it to the southwest, curving the line so as to keep in close proximity to the city.
Our entire force consisted of Wise’s Brigade and General Dearing’s artillery, with a small cavalry escort. Passing through the city [on June 15, 1864] our brigade pushed on to the enemy’s from near the river, taking our position in the old entrenchments, long ago constructed and now almost obliterated by the wear of time and nature.3 Skirmishing and a change of position at once begun. The enemy were intrenching in a parallel line within close range. The firing grew heavier as night approached, and a great struggle was now on. A little later on and the remaining brigade of our division—Elliott’s, Ransom’s, Gracie’s and the remnant of Bushrod Johnson’s Brigade—was followed by Hoke’s Division. They took position on our left, we pushing to the right and taking a stand to the right of the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, now the Norfolk and Western.
A Night Battle.
Once or twice the legions of General Meade got possession of the works to the left of us, but were beaten back. The fighting continued until after nightfall with great fury, and at intervals during the entire night there were heavy volleys and cannonading. The pickets were constantly engaged in sharpshooting. The night was intensely hot, and we had nothing to eat, and had not even had water to drink since we had left the Howlett line.
I shall never forget that night. The famishing thirst and the awful roar of musketry made a lasting impression on my boyish mind. It fell to my lot to be on the picket line, which was a few yards in front of the main line on the hillside. We had not time or means to dig rifle pits and had to take our chances. We took such shelter as we could find behind trees and stumps. My protection was an old pine stump somewhat decayed and altogether too low, but it was all I had, and I was thankful for that much. Lying down behind that stump famishing for water, half-starved and worn-out with fatigue, I actually fell asleep and was more than once awakened by a Minie ball striking the stump. Here we spent the night, a miserable one, sometimes falling asleep from sheer exhaustion and then firing again until our gunbarrels would get too hot to use.
YANKEES STRONGLY ENTRENCHED.
When morning dawned [on June 16, 1864] we were greeted with the sight of the great, high, red lines of earthworks, capped with sand bags, close up to our fronts, which had been constructed during the night by the industrious Yanks. They had dry, deep rifle pits for their pickets still closer to us, and seemed to be so busy that they did not fire a gun. As the morning wore on and the quiet still prevailed, we betook ourselves to the same kind of work and constructed pits for our pickets, while the business of strengthening the main line went on. The day was spent in this way without incident. We still had nothing to eat, and of course there was some good-natured grumbling, but the boys knew that the wagon trains had to come from the northside in the vicinity of Chester, find us if possible before any bacon and hard tack could be distributed.
On the Old Plank Road.
That evening, June 16 , towards nightfall, we were hurried far to the right near the Jerusalem Plank Road to meet an attack upon the line held by Clingman’s and Ransom’s North Carolina brigades. When we arrived the battle had begun. Screaming and exploding shells and the tremendous volleys of musketry told us what was going on. We were rushed into line under a galling fire, and took our position in the old entrenchments, which afforded almost no protection at all. Tremendous assaults were made upon us in rapid succession, preceded every time by a storm of artillery fire. The battle raged until a late hour in the night with tremendous fury. General Meade with a large force was making a powerful effort to break our lines and was constantly being reinforced by fresh troops, the Army of the Potomac having now consolidated with the Army of the James. No reinforcements had yet come to us.
About 9 o’clock in the night there was a lull in the battle. During this lull there was a stillness that was broken only by the subdued voice of officers, and the clicking of the wheels and gun carriages, apparently moving to our right. By this we knew that an attack would be made with the purpose of tearing the right flank of our heroic little army of probably 5,000 men, now facing perhaps 30,000.
Just at this time, and during the calm, the smoke of battle lifted. The moon was shining brightly, and there all about us was the ghastly sight of the dead and dying. The old trench was strewn with them; here one poor fellow struggled in the agonies of pain, others were cold and stiff in death, their pale faces plainly visible in the weird glow of the rising moon. They were Clingman’s North Carolinians, who had held this position of the line before we came in.
Another Grand Assault.
Presently we were moved further to the right to meet the new assault. Stationed again in line of battle in this new position, the battle was raging with renewed vigor. A powerful assault was immediately made by the enemy, this time with a still stronger force and more artillery. We poured tremendous volleys into the ranks as they came up, and were receiving as good as we were sending, while their artillery projectiles were enfilading our line with tremendous effect. Charge after charge was made by the solid ranks of Yankees, until after a little while it was discovered that they had broken our line on the left and were flanking us.
Forced to Fall Back.
There was but one thing to do—fall back. The order was passed down the line by the officers and men, and was understood by some, while others felt that they had no official orders to leave the works. Of course, there was great confusion. Our lines were abandoned, and the retreat was hasty and thoroughly disorganized. We were defeated for the first time in our experience. It might be called almost a panic at this moment. But a thin and straggling line made a stand in a skirt of woods a short distance to the rear, and the stragglers from behind soon formed the organization and it was again a line of battle. The enemy in the meantime had ceased firing on gaining our works, content with their victory.
Had they only known our condition and followed up quickly what they had gained they could have gone into Petersburg that night without further opposition. But their precaution was natural. Meade did not know what other troops or defenses might be in our rear, and it was now about 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Then again he was no doubt aware of the fact that Longstreet and A. P. Hill had put their columns in motion about nightfall, and were coming to our assistance. It was natural for him to conclude that a further advance would have been too hazardous.
On the Main Line.
When we had gathered up the stragglers and lined up the men, we quietly fell back to a line held out by General Beauregard’s engineers. There we found a great army of negroes very busy with picks and shovels digging the entrenchments where the final stand was to be made—trenches which were to be occupied and held by the Confederates during the long siege that was to follow. Reaching this line about the dawn of day on the morning of June 18, we were all on the verge of physical exhaustion, having been fighting and marching day and night since the afternoon of the 15th, when we left the Howlett lines. We had had during this time nothing to eat, save such little scraps as some of the men happened to have in their haversacks, no time to sleep, and not even water to drink most of the time. A little after sunrise the detail of cooks came in with some cooked rations, scant though they were; and about that time we saw the glistening bayonets of Longstreet’s and A. P. Hill’s Corps slowly filing over the hill at Blandford Cemetery. Kershaw’s Division relieved us, taking our position on the line of battle. This afforded us a short respite from the strain of long fighting and, after remaining for a while as a reserve line until General Lee was satisfied that no further attack would be made that morning, we were moved again. Filing over the hill, we took a position in a deep ravine between the battle line and Petersburg for rest and recuperation. Grant had by this time assembled a large army in front of the beleagured city. The memorable siege of Petersburg had commenced.
Work of Johnson’s Division.
Our division, assisted towards the last by Hoke’s Division, had stood for nearly three days as the only defense of the city against a powerful army, and we were proud of the distinction and praise that was accorded us by an admiring people and our beloved Army of Northern Virginia. General Grant’s quick passage over the James with such a great army in such an incredible short space of time stands unmatched in the annals of war as a masterly piece of rapid transportation, while his tactics were of the highest order, but the “thin line of gray” was standing across his way when he approached Petersburg, and that line fought him to a standstill once more. Beauregard’s total strength had been 14,000 men. Grant had practically his whole army opposing him. The Federal casualties for the Petersburg campaign, from June 13-18, are given as follows: Killed, 1,298; wounded, 7,474; missing, 1,314. Total, 10,586. There are no returns for Beauregard’s losses, but they are estimated at killed, 500; wounded, 2,200; missing, 2,000. Total, 4,700.4
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The anonymous author is describing the final portions of Butler’s May 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and then the ensuing stalemate along the Howlett Line as Butler’s Army of the James was bottled up on Bermuda Hundred. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The description above makes it clear the author is mixed up on the date and is clearly referring to the First Battle of Petersburg on June 9, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Beauregard had pulled Johnson’s Division out of the Howlett Line and sent them south to Petersburg in order to stave off the Union advance on the Cockade City. ↩
- “Quick Advance Saved Beleaguered Petersburg.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. March 27, 1910 p. 3, col. 1-3 ↩