No. 12. Report of Major Nathaniel Michler, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army.1
HDQRS. ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, ENGINEER DEPARTMENT, October 20, 1864.
The march across the Chickahominy and the James and the operations in front of Petersburg up to the assault on the enemy’s position, July 30, 1864.
On the night of the 12th, in accordance with orders dated the previous day, all necessary preparations having been completed, the withdrawal
*For portion of report (here omitted) covering operations from May 4 to June 12, 1864, see Vol. XXXVI, Part I, p.291.
of the troops from the hotly contested field so long occupied by them was effected and the several columns set in motion, headquarters camp moved during the evening from the neighborhood of Leary’s to Moody’s house, striking York River railroad, near Dispatch Station.
On the 13th the major-general commanding moved from Moody’s to Charles City Court-House, crossing the Chickahominy at Long Bridge. The Second Corps marched by the same route, taking the road to Edna Mills, Saint Mary’s Church, Ladd’s Store, Ware’s, Walker’s, and Waddill’s, and striking the James River road from Charles City Court-House to Richmond at Mrs. Clark’s. By direction of the commanding general I proceeded, the Sixth Pennsylvania Regiment of Cavalry acting as escort, in advance of the Army of the Potomac to the James River, to reconnoiter the ground from Swynyard’s, overlooking Herring Creek and Harrison’s Landing, and thence over Gunn’s or Hill’s Run and Queen’s Creek toward the mouth of Kelliwan Creek. The examination had in view the selection of a line of battle to be taken up for the protection of the passage of the army over the James River. The line selected covered Swynyard’s and Wilcox’s Landings, the left resting on Herring Creek, and crossed the upper part of Wyanoke Neck, or Peninsula, at the southern point of which it had been ordered that a pontoon bridge should be thrown. The Second Corps, the advance of the army, reached the position by dark, and commenced to intrench. The work was subsequently suspended. Headquarters camp was established near the Court-House.
On the morning of the 14th steamers commenced ferrying the Second Corps across the James from Wilcox’s Landing to Wind-Mill Point. At an early hour the Fifth and Sixth Corps arrived, a portion of the former taking up the positions of the Second, as they were respectively abandoned, and later in the day the Ninth came up. The engineering officers and assistants were all engaged in endeavoring to find direct roads leading from the Court-House across Queen’s Creek down Wyanoke Neck, but soon discovered that it was only fordable on the main road. It was ascertained that approaches were being constructed at the landing under the direction of General Weitzel, chief engineer of the Army of the James, preparatory to building the pontoon bridge. Not sufficient material for completing the bridge had yet been received at the point, the officer in charge of the engineer depot at Washington having been directed to furnish it. Upon Major Duane’s arrival the former turned over the entire charge of the matter, and the bridge was thrown under the direction of the latter.
At daybreak of the morning of the 15th I was directed to select a short line to be held by the Sixth Corps to cover the crossing of the remainder of the army and the supply train. In order to leave sufficient space to park the latter I chose a very commanding ridge running westwardly from Tyler’s Mill, the right to rest on Tyler’s Creek (impassable below the mill), and the left on the James below the mouth of Queen’s Creek. The battalion of U. S. Engineers was ordered in the morning to Wyanoke Landing to construct the pontoon bridge. The latter was commenced at 4 p.m., and was finished at 11 p.m., consisting of 101 wooden pontoons. At 9.30 p.m. of this date orders were issued for the Ninth Corps to move down and immediately commence crossing. Headquarters camp moved from the Court-House to Douthat’s, on the James River. The first attack on Petersburg was made on this day, when the outer line of the enemy’s works was captured by the Eighteenth Corps. The latter had been transported by steamers from the White House to City Point.
On the morning of the 16th the general staff of the commanding general (the latter with one or two of his personal staff having taken a steamer to City Point) crossed the pontoon bridge and followed the road to the front of Petersburg by way of Cocke’s Mill, Merchants-Hope Chapel, and Old Court-House. Camp was established in the course of the day at Baylor’s. A few moments before dark a general assault was made along the whole line of troops then in position against the enemy’s second intrenched position, and to the looker-on proved a most brilliant sight.
Both on the 17th and 18th the attacking column of the Eighteenth, Second, and Ninth Corps renewed their desperate efforts against the enemy’s front, at times reaching and mounting his very parapets, and would then be compelled to retire after most desperate fighting and heavy loss. On the right flank the Eighteenth gained possession of the ground at Page’s, near the Appomattox, and to this day that locality is one of the advanced positions occupied by our troops. The line is there within a few hundred yards of Petersburg. At this time the reconnaissance and surveys of our lines in front of that city and of its environs commenced under my direction. Major Weyss, of the Engineer Department, had immediate charge of the principal field party.
The Engineer Corps was called upon, on the 17th, to mourn the loss of one of its most accomplished officers. While reconnoitering the position in front of the Ninth Corps for the purpose of selecting the ground upon which a division [sic] in line of battle preparatory to the assault on that day, Major Morton exposed himself to the unerring shot of one of the enemy’s sharpshooters. He was killed instantly, the ball penetrating his left breast. Major Morton had served with the Army of the Potomac but a short time, having joined on the banks of the North Anna. He was immediately on his arrival assigned to the Ninth Corps and remained with it until his death, performing excellent service. His great desire to excel in his profession, added to an energetic and impulsive nature, had led him on several previous occasions to greatly expose himself. He laid down on the battle-field a useful, active, and brave life in the cause of his country, and deeply has the army (especially the corps to which he had been so long and ably attached) been called to grieve his sudden death. Captain Harwood, U. S. Engineers, having reported for duty on the 27th, was a day or two after temporarily assigned to the Ninth Corps.
On the 19th and 20th the two opposing armies remained comparatively quiet, each willing to rest after their late exhausting labors.
During these four days Lieutenants Howell and Benyaurd were engaged on the right of the line, and Captain Gillespie on the left.
During the three following ones (the 21st, 22d, and 23d) the army resumed, after the brief suspension referred to, active operations tending toward outflanking the enemy on his right and of severing his lines of communication toward the south. The Second and Sixth Corps were the active participants in the several severe fights which took place in the endeavors to reach the Weldon railroad. The several officers of engineers accompanied these movements. An intrenched line was finally taken up and held, running nearly south from the Appomattox along the front of Petersburg to the Jerusalem plank road, and then almost parallel to that road, with the left refused and again crossing it near the Williams house. The headquarters of the major-general commanding were moved on the 23rd to the neighborhood of the Jones’ house, and remained encamped there for nearly three weeks.
On the 24th, accompanied by Captain Mendell and Lieutenant Howell, I made a reconnaissance of the country between the Avery house and the Blackwater Swamp, for the purpose of selecting a line to fall back upon in the event of withdrawing a part of the army for other purposes. The crossings of the swamp were also carefully searched, and its character examined in regard to forming an obstacle to the passage of artillery and infantry.
On the 29th the Appomattox was also examined in reference to the facilities for bridging it.
General Sheridan’s expedition toward Gordonsville returned on the 30th, and the assistants who accompanied it brought back most valuable topographical information, among other interesting matter a survey of the lines of the enemy’s works at Spotsylvania Court-House. This latter enables me to furnish in full, and with accuracy, the battlefield map of that locality. Surveys were daily made of the different lines taken up, and reconnaissances were extended over the adjacent country. The extreme heat and dust greatly interfered with their advancement.
Lieutenant Howell was temporarily, during the 28th, 29th, and 30th, on duty with the Sixth Corps, and Lieutenant Benyaurd, for the last few days of June, with the Ninth Corps. Captain Gillespie was engaged also at this time with the different corps in examining and rectifying their lines.
During the month of July the officers of engineers were principally occupied in superintending the various operations of their profession, such as the preparation of siege material, the construction of redoubts, batteries, parallels, and boyeaux, together with conducting the necessary surveys, and preparing complete plans and maps of the envious of the city and its approaches incident to offensive movements against the fortified position taken up by the enemy in front of Petersburg. No regular siege was intended, as it would be impossible, with the small army brought before it, to invest it completely. The lineal contour is too great to attempt to cut off all communications with the town, or to prevent re-enforcements being thrown into it. To take the place some favorable position must be selected at which to assault the works and burst through and occupy the interior, and to accomplish this a preponderance of metal must be brought to bear against the immediate point of attack to silence the enemy’s guns, and to open the way for an attacking column specially chosen for the occasion. The new era in field-works has so changed their character as in fact to render them almost as strong as permanent ones, and the facility with which new and successive lines of works can be constructed (so well proven throughout the whole campaign just terminated) renders it almost useless to attempt a regular siege. The open assault of works is attended with immense loss of life, but at the same time during the slow operations of the siege the sharpshooters so effectually does his work as to produce a large bill of mortality.
On the 3rd of July the major-general commanding addressed a communication to the chief of artillery and chief engineer to know “whether any offensive operations from he lines now held by this army are practicable.” The commanding general of the Ninth Corps had authorized Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, commanding the Forty-eight Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, to drive a gallery for a mine to blow up one of the enemy’s batteries in his front, and the above officers were also directed to examine the place and ascertain whether on assault could be advantageously made, should the operation prove
successful. The result of their investigation is set forth in the following extract from the reply made on the 6th, in compliance with the instructions received by them:
The enemy’s front has been very much strengthened. It consists of a system of redoubts connected by infantry parapets. The ground in front in obstructed by abatis, stakes, and entanglements, rendering an assault impracticable. Regular approaches must therefore be resorted to. It is probable the siege will be a very long one, inasmuch as soon as one line of works is carried another equally strong will be found behind it, and this will continue until the ridge is attained which looks into the town.
The front of attack decided upon was a salient of the enemy’s line on or near the Jerusalem plank road.
On the 9th of July orders were issued by the commanding general that “the operations of this army against the intrenched position of the enemy defending Petersburg will be by regular approaches on the fronts opposed to General Burnside’s and General Warren’s corps,” and on the following day a plano conducting the siege was submitted.
On the 11th, the project, being in conformity with his views, was approved and adopted, and it was ordered that the work be commenced at once. Copies of the respective papers above referred to will be appended to this report.
The interesting reports of Captain Mendell, commanding the Engineer Battalion, and of Lieutenant-Colonel Spaulding, commanding detachment Fiftieth New York Volunteer Engineers, furnish summaries of the engineering work performed under the direction of the different officers of their respective commands in accordance with the plan of attack adopted.
Lieutenant Lydecker, who reported late in June, was retained on duty at general headquarters; also took an active part in the construction of the works referred to. Captain Farquhar had charge of those in front of the Eighteenth Corps. Descriptions of the several redoubts and batteries constructed are also therein given, and drawings of them will be submitted in the appendix to this report; the latter were made by Corporal Thompson, assisted by some non-commissioned officers and privates of the Engineer Battalion, under the direction of its commanding officer.
On learning the plan adopted I directed my principal assistant, Major John E. Weyss, to commence on the 9th an exact triangulation of the front of Petersburg, locating our own line of work as well as that of the enemy, and to take the immediate charge of the surveying party. My assistants, Messrs. Theilkuhl, Schumann, and Jacobsen aided him. The work was extended from the south of the Jerusalem plank road as far north as City Point. By this triangulation, performed under the fire of the enemy’s batteries and sharpshooters, the different spires and certain prominent buildings in Petersburg were accurately located, and having been kindly furnished by Professor Bache, Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, with a copy of the beautiful map of that city and the Appomattox River prepared a few years ago in his department, I was able to combine the two, and thereby obtain an exact and connected map of the locality of our siege operations, covering the whole ground occupied by both armies.
On the 9th the troops of the Sixth Corps were withdrawn from the line so long occupied by them and ordered to Washington City. On the following day I was directed to select a line, refused from the position occupied by that corps, extending from the redoubt (now called Fort Prescott, then in course of construction) on the Jerusalem plank
road toward the Blackwater Swamp. Lieutenant Lydecker accompanied me during the reconnaissance, and was subsequently directed to trance the line and place in position the troops ordered to hold it. The site for a new redoubt was chosen between the Norfolk railroad and the swamp, and its construction placed under the direction of Captain Harwood, who had been relieved from duty with the Ninth Corps the same day.
On the 12th the camp of general headquarters was moved from Jones’ to a more central position near Burchett’s and in rear of the center of the Ninth Corps.
On the 14th orders were issued to have the old works of the enemy demolished. This had been his advanced position, and the first to be taken by assault. The redoubts and batteries, in fact the whole intrenched line, had been beautifully planned and constructed at a much earlier period, in view of the probability of a demonstration being made against Petersburg. The site selected was a most magnificent and commanding one, the natural lay of the open fields in front forming a most perfect glaces. Fortunately surveys were made of this line, and maps of the works preserved, a set of which will be appended.
Toward the close of the month everything was in readiness to explode the mine which had been in course of construction in front of the Ninth Corps. In company with Colonel Spaulding and Lieutenant Benyaurd I had the great gratification of penetrating the gallery and its lateral branches, and of examining in detail its construction, the mode of ventilation, and the arrangement of the chambers. Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, who kindly offered to accompany the party and explain the nature of his labors, and to whom all are highly indebted for his politeness, had prepared a highly interesting report, giving a succinct account of the manner of driving the gallery and its lateral branches, the nature of the soil encountered, the construction and dimensions of the chambers, the charging and tamping, with other interesting facts connected with the history of the mine from its first inception to its completion. Accurate drawings have also been prepared by him to accompany the report. From it I extract the length of the main gallery to be 510.8 feet and each of the lateral galleries 37.5 feet; radius of crater, 25 feet; work commenced June 25 and finished July 23.
The different engineering operations, which had been pushed forward night and day, were fast progressing toward completion. The several batteries, constructed with the utmost care and in the highest order of professional skill, had received their armaments of guns and mortars, and only waited the moment to play a conspicuous part in whatever steps might be taken, either offensive or defensive.
On the 26th the Second Corps received marching orders and crossed the Appomattox and James to Deep Bottom, to co-operate with the Army of the James. Lieutenant Howell was directed to accompany the movement, and remained with the command until it returned on the night of the 29th to participate in the arrangements for the grand assault upon the enemy’s works. Instructions were issued on that day by the commanding general for the guidance of all in the contemplated attack, and in accordance with these engineer officers were assigned to duty with each corps.
On the morning of the 30th the mine was exploded, although, in consequence of some disarrangement of the fuse (Bickford’s), not at the appointed hour. The result proved it a decided success, for in its crater were swallowed up several guns, a large number of men-an entire regiment-besides destroying a considerable part of the enemy’s line.
The dimensions of the crater proved to be 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, the explosive charge being 8,000 pounds. The grand assault was made, and the accomplish its purpose. Orders were issued to discontinue operations during the day.
Accompanying this report are those of Colonel Spaulding and Captain Mendell, both already referred to, together with the several papers* ordering and planning the siege operations in front of Petersburg. Appended to it is also a portfolio of maps,+ with a table of distances ++ between the separate camps of the major-general commanding.
The following list comprises the several numbers of each of the series, namely:
A. Six sheets (1-6 inclusive), campaign maps showing in colors the lines of operations of the several corps of the Army of the Potomac, from the neighborhood of Culpeper to the front of Petersburg.
B. Eleven sheets (1-11 inclusive), copies of photograph maps as issued to the army during the entire campaign.
C. Four sheets (1-4 inclusive), battle-field maps, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, siege of Petersburg.
D. Seven sheets (1-7 inclusive), drawings, plans, and sections of redoubts and batteries, constructed during the month of July in front of Petersburg.
E. Eleven sheets (1-11 inclusive), drawings showing the first and advanced line of the enemy in front of Petersburg, with plans and sections of batteries along it.
F. Six sheets (1-6 inclusive), copies of the original campaign maps compiled from the best authorities for the use of the Army of the Potomac previous to the commencement of the move across the Rapidan.
This report does not intend to furnish more than a general outline of the various duties performed by the different officers of the Engineer Corps who were during the campaign connected with the Army of the Potomac. As far as it has been in my power, I have endeavored to portray faithfully the extent of their labors. Many omissions may have been made in enumerating them, but these may be rectified in a subsequent and more detailed account of that most interesting period, when time and circumstances allow an exact description to be furnished of the country through which the lines of march extended, and of the nature of the operations performed.
I have not deemed it proper or right to dwell upon the exact character of the duties performed by the acting chief engineer, Major James C. Duane, only casually having mentioned them in a few cases when we accompanied each other on different reconnaissances. It is to be hoped that his health will soon permit him to prepare an accurate statement of the engineering operations performed by him and under his directions. Until then I trust that what has now been presented will prove acceptable. Believing it would afford him great pleasure, in his name I respectfully request the favorable attention of the major-general commanding to the important services rendered by the officers of both the regular and volunteer engineers. They labored faithfully and earnestly to attend to the respective duties assigned them, and I believe with great credit and honor to themselves and to that arm of service to
*See Meade, to Hunt and Duane, July 3, Part II; Hunt and Duane to Humphreys, July 6, p. 285, ante; same July 10, p. 286, ante; Orders, July 9, p. 159, ante; and Williams to Hunt and Duane, July 11, p.287, ante.
+Such of these maps as may be found will appear in the Atlas.
++See Vol. XXXVI. Part I, p.303.
which they belong. I trust a proper acknowledgment will be made them for the active part taken by them during that most trying period-from the crossing of the Rapidan to the assault on Petersburg.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major of Engineers, U. S. Army.
General S. WILLIAMS,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Army of the Potomac.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 288-295 ↩