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OR XLII P1 #249: Report of Col. Edward W. Serrell, 1st NY Eng, Sept 27-Oct 5, 1864

No. 249. Report of Col. Edward W. Serrell, First New York Engineers, of operations September 27-October 5.1

Hdqrs. First New York Volunteer Engineers,

In the Field, Va., October 5,1864.

Major: I have the honor to report the operations of the last few days as follows:

At 10.30 o’clock of the morning of 27th of September I received orders from department headquarters to report to Major-General Ord, commanding Eighteenth Army Corps, and accordingly did so, when Major-General Ord ordered me to report for orders at 5 o’clock in the evening, which I did. He ordered me to report with such officers and men of the two battalions of my regiment serving with the Army of the James “as were not on other duty,” and I was orally informed by the chief of staff

of the department that this was to include H Company, then on duty at Dutch Gap. I was then ordered to be at the pontoon bridge near Aiken’s on the James River at 3 o’clock the next morning, and to take three wagons of the engineer park, loaded with tools, and to join the line of march between the First and Second Divisions of the Eighteenth Army Corps. At 3 o’clock Major-General Ord ordered me to take the rear of the Second Division, Eighteenth Army Corps, and that if the troops came into action to drop back 500 or 600 yards out of fire and hold the engineer troops in readiness for anything that might be required of them. I was also ordered to leave the wagons on the south side of the James River, to leave the arms and equipments of about half the men, and take as many tools as those unarmed could carry. The line of march was across the pontoon bridge, then to the east about a quarter of a mile, to Mr. Aiken’s house, then northeasterly up the Varina road upon the enemy’s works. Shortly alter daylight we heard the beginning of the action between our advance and the enemy; and at about 7 o’clock an order was received from the commanding general (I was then personally with him near the head of the column) to hurry up the engineers to the front and establish works against Fort Harrison. We started on the quick and double-quick, but by the time we got up to Childrey’s farm, north of the Kingsland road, about half a mile, we had the satisfaction of seeing one division making a splendid charge up the hill on the fort, and I was ordered to await further orders. Our troops gallantly carried the work and maintained it.

The commanding general having been wounded during the action I reported to General Heckman, who became temporarily in command, and in the evening was ordered to establish a line of works from Fort Harrison to the river at some point over which our troops had obtained or could get possession. Operations were immediately commenced and a line begun across the open fields in a southerly direction, and Captain Suess and Lieutenant Archer, volunteer engineers, were ordered to make a reconnaissance toward the James River, with a view of ascertaining the nearest point upon which to rest our left. In the discharge of this duty they were both captured by the enemy, but through a subterfuge escaped and returned to our lines in about two hours, and reported a strong force directly in our front, on the left and between us and the river. The general commanding the corps in consequence of this information, directed that our line of works should be retired on the left, with a view of taking up such a position as might enable us to hold the approach to Fort Harrison by the Varina road, and a line of rifle-pits was at once begun for that purpose. The whole army was, however, so much exhausted that it was with very great difficulty that any work at all was done during the night. At Fort Harrison some logs and a little earth were put up to make a breast-work, closing the former gorge, but the extreme exhaustion of the men prevented its completion on the new right. The next day work was continued at Fort Harrison, and after consultation with General Stannard, commanding, a new front to the fort was laid out by me, and heavy working parties were continued at the exterior line. Emplacements were also begun for three guns on the new left to enfilade the line of the rifle-pits on the left of the fort, and Capt. John L. Suess, volunteer engineers, was placed by me in charge of the works at the fort. On the left of Fort Harrison the line was again advanced to the position first selected the night before (previous to the order to retire it on the left) and good cover for the men was soon obtained. This line crosses the open country yards, then

through the garden of a house and again over open corn-field for some 450 yards, where it enters the woods. At the point where the old road (the continuation to the left of the Kings!and road) strikes the works, I selected a site for a battery, but it was not then commenced, as the general commanding thought it best to make cover to the river, or near there, first, and during this day and night and the next day the work was pushed through the woods to the intersection of the old road leading from the Varina road to Cox’s house, where a seven-gun fort was located in the clearing and its construction placed under the direction of Captain Farrand, volunteer engineers.

The work between Fort Harrison and the center was under the direction of Capt. Samuel C. Eaton, and afterward Capt. H. M. Dalrymple, volunteer engineers. On the left Captain Eaton had charge, as the line was advanced from right to left. The work has been pushed day and night up to this time. All the infantry that could be worked have been employed cutting and slashing the woods and throwing up the covering mass, and a regular detail of 230 engineer soldiers have directed and have done the mechanical work. The line is now in a good condition of defense. The new front of Fort Harrison is up and nearly revetted: the banquette is ready for use. The guns on the left are in place and are traversed against the fire of the enemy.

During the past three days Lieutenant Archer, volunteer engineers, has been making surveys from our front and of it, and triangulating to all the visible positions of the enemy, and has obtained much information of the works opposite to us. The officers above named have been assisted by Lieut. James S. Baldwin, Lieut. W. H. Baldwin, Lieut. J. Connolly, and Lieutenant Wilkes, who have relieved each other in turn as circumstances required. Captain Hartmann, volunteer engineers, who started with this movement, was, early on the second day, ordered to report to the major-general commanding Tenth Army Corps, and took the general charge of the left of that line. During the afternoon of the 4th instant Capt. Hiram Farrand, First New York Volunteer Engineers, in charge of the fort being built on the Kingsland road, while in one of the embrasures in the discharge of his duty, was severely wounded in the face, right arm, and breast, by the explosion of a shell from the enemy’s gun-boat in the James River. It is feared he will lose his right eye. I must earnestly recommend Captain Farrand for a brevet. He has done long and signal service and deserved well of the country before Wagner, Gregg, and Sumter, and in the affairs of Morris and Folly Islands last year. It is hoped he may now be suitably rewarded. I have also the honor to request a brevet for Capt. John L. Suess, First New York Volunteer Engineers, whose exertions were instrumental in providing a new front for Fort Harrison, by which it has successfully resisted three assaults of the enemy. The importance of this position was impressed upon Captain Suess, and he fully appreciated it, and acted accordingly. Captain Suess has already lost the greater part of his right hand in the service. His untiring energy and skill deserve reward. It is proper to mention that, in addition to the other duties already enumerated, Capt. H. M. Dalrymple assisted Captain Suess in making the changes at Fort Harrison. Most respectfully, your obedient servant,

Col. Engineers, New York, Comdg. First N. Y. Vol. Engineers.

Major Read, U. S. Army,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Eighteenth Army Corps.


  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 1 (Serial Number 87), pages 674-676
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