Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
FIGHTING THEM OVER
What Our Veterans Have to Say About Their Old Campaigns.
ARMY OF THE JAMES.
Fighting and Suffering Around Bermuda Hundred.
EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: I have been a reader of your paper for some time, and nearly all the personal reminiscences of comrades have been connected with our Western and the Potomac armies. Although our corps—the Eighteenth, “Baldy” Smith commander—was attached to the Army of the Potomac during the early siege of Petersburg, and for over 90 days my regiment—the 2d P[ennsylvani]a. H[eavy]. A[rtillery].—had been under constant fire night and day in the trenches, and had taken part in the severe struggles to storm the works from the 15th to the 17th of June, 1864, yet our corps, along with the Tenth Corps and Kautz’s cavalry, were better known as the “Army of the James.”
After being relieved from the Petersburg front, we encamped at the Bermuda Hundred front until the night of the 28th of September, 1864, when our whole command, under Gen. [Benjamin F.] Butler (our corps under Gen. [Edward O. C.] Ord and the Tenth under Gen. [David B.] Birney), received marching orders to cross the James River on pontoons before sunrise on the morning of the 29th. We broke camp at 1 a. m., and arrived at Jones’s Landing at daybreak. This pontoon bridge was of unusual length.
The planks were covered with sawdust and boughs of trees to deaden the sound, yet there was considerable noise from the marching column, as the bridge swayed to and fro, and some of the men at the edge lost their balance and fell into the river. The bridge was anchored, and had a man at each rope holding it taut so that it could not sway. Still it swayed with the swinging motion of the troops.
When our division reached the bridge, the skirmishers of our corps were engaged on the ridge known as Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Bluff, which was a large fort [Fort Harrison], one of the main forts on the line of the defenses around Richmond. This was captured by the First Division of our corps, and I think the 158th N[ew]. Y[ork]. was the first regiment over the works. After the capture of this important position, we were double-quicked to the right, passing Gen. Ord, who was wounded and in his headquarters ambulance, and who said as we passed, “Hurry up, boys! we’ll be in Richmond to-night.” And no doubt we would have been, if he had not had to leave the field.
We were now in front of Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer], a large fort to the right of the fort just captured [from a Union soldier’s perspective]. Here our regiment supported two batteries, who were playing on the fort prior to the charge. The artillery of the forts was heavy siege-guns, which threw grape and canister by the bucketful. While lying here a shell struck the ranks of my company, killing Joseph Spence and wounding 12 men. Many of them were wounded by splinters from the muskets of the men. One comrade had to have the mainspring of a gun cut out of his breast, where it embedded itself. Allen J. Egglestin, of West Pittston, Pa., lost his hand by this same shot. Poor Spence, of Co. M, lived long enough to be lifted upon a stretcher, saying: “Boys, tell mother I died in front of the rebels.” He was not yet 16 years old.
Another incident showing the terrible effect of the heavy artillery in the Richmond works: A solid shot took off the head of one of our regiment in Battery F, and scattered the poor fellow’s brains in the face of the Colonel of the 9th V[ermon]t., who was passing in the rear of that company. He was a very young officer, that was in full uniform and finely dressed. His remarks, after taking out his handkerchief and wiping his face and front of his coat, were: “I had almost as soon it had been my own.”
The 1st and 2d battalion of our regiment now charged Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer], but were repulsed after several attempts to capture the fort, which, they said, was faced with sheet-iron and besmeared with mud, so that the men slipped down into the very deep ditch that surrounded the work. Our battalion was sent to the right while this was going on to capture a smaller work t the rebel left of Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer]. An attempt was made to cross the field, but we had to fall back to a sunken road, under cover from the terrible effects of the rebel guns. Had Fort Gilmore [sic, Gilmer] fallen we could have captured the smaller fort, for its guns covered a large line of the enemy’s works. While we lay in this sunken road many incidents occurred. There was a house between the lines, and many of us ran the risk of getting there and confiscating its contents. I remember I got a green silk dress, which was torn into handkerchiefs for our necks. One comrade came out with a hoopskirt on, and many other ridiculous scenes transpired. A well full of fine water was another attraction, but the rebel gunners soon got the range of the house and the well, and we had to fall back. The curb of the well was shot away and the house and the house was soon in ruins.
About sundown we fell back to the main line, where the other two battalions of our regiment were. These battalions went into the fight under command of Majs. Anderson and Saddler; the former was killed, and the latter wounded and taken prisoner.
The losses in our regiment were reported to be from four to five hundred in killed, wounded and prisoners. (It will be remembered that our regiment was larger than most of the brigades.)
That night, after considerable marching around in the dark, we were ordered to rest. In the morning [September 30, 1864] we commenced to fortify our position, when the rebel ram Richmond and other gunboats in the James River opened on us, throwing 200-pound shell up in the air, as they could not elevate their guns to get the range, on account of the high banks of the river. These “tar-buckets and nail-kegs,” as the boys called them, caused considerable consternation and noise, but did not injure many. If these guns could have been elevated, no works could have been built there.
On the afternoon of Sept. 30 three divisions sent from Petersburg charged three times upon the large fort [Harrison] capture by us the previous day. This fort was open in the rear, and we had not time to finish reversing it. Still, in it were three solid lines of battle, one above the other, on the hill, and from the effects of their terrible discharges of musketry (one line having seven shooters) they were repulsed each time with great loss. Talking with a wounded North Carolinian after the action, he said “You’uns did not seem to load your guns.”
Toward night a terrible rainstorm set in, lasting three or four days and nights, and the wet and cold caused us a great deal of suffering, as no fires were allowed, and we were started on this flank movement in light marching order, with no tents. All we had were gum blankets and three days’ rations, which gave out, and the rise of the river cut the pontoon bridge in two, so that we were in a famished condition. A large cornfield near by furnished us relief. We split canteens and punched holes in them and made graters, on which we grated the corn and made meal, out of which we made mush and pancakes. The pancakes were fried on the shovels we had used in digging the rifle-pits.
During this storm the Sanitary Commission at City Point, hearing of our situation, sent up on a tug a large machine from making coffee. As it came over the hill from the landing all surmises as to what it was came from the boys’ lips. Some said it was a fire-engine, which it looked very much like. As it was drawn by horses, and smoke came from it, others said it was the “devil’s flying artillery.” One, more considerate than the rest, said, “You’ll find out before you are through with it that it’s Christ’s flying artillery.” Sure enough the boys thought that the latter name was not out of place, as it dispensed a large cup of hot coffee, with sugar and milk; and the boys who are living to-day will say with me, “God bless the commander of that battery.”
But my letter is now too long. Suffice it to say our regiment lay here until the night of Nov. 18, when we were aroused by the long-roll and severe firing on our left, at Bermuda Hundred front. It was a little after midnight when we crossed the James again, to support Gen. Hartranft’s Division of one year’s men, who had lost part of their picket-line, which was the cause of the long-roll. This line was re-established, and the Division of Gen. Hartranft sent to the Petersburg front. Here the experience of the Chapin [sic, Chaffin’s] Farm storm was repeated, as it set in for a long, cold Fall rain, and all our tents and blankets were on the other side of the James.
I hope this letter will arouse some of the boys of the Army of the James, and that they will write up some of its history. This is the sole object that has actuated the writer.—JOE. M. ALEXANDER, Co. M, 2d P[ennsylvani]a. H[eavy]. A[rtillery]., 112th P[ennsylvani]a.1
- Alexander, Joe M. “Army of the James.” National Tribune 31 July 1890. 3:1. ↩