No. 16. Report of Bvt. Captain Charles W. Howell, U. S. Corps of Engineers.1
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
BATTALION U. S. ENGINEERS, April 19, 1865.
COLONEL: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to your orders, I reported for duty on the 29th of March to Major-General Humphreys, commanding Second Corps, whom I found on the Vaughan road, near Gravelly Run crossing, engaged in forming his line nearly parallel to the road, preparatory to an advance. I was immediately sent around his left flank with a small cavalry escort and orders to push through the country, up the left bank of Gravelly Run to the Quaker rod, and then to Gravelly Run Meeting-House, if possible, to determine and report the nature of the country, the character, strength, and position of the position of the enemy’s force on that road. We succeeded in reaching a point three-fourths of a mile beyond the church, when we met a superior force and returned with but slight loss. The left wing of the corps was then swung around nearly parallel to Gravelly Run, with left ear the church, and entrenched. It was then moved forward to connect with the Fifth Corps, but, owing to the swamp nature of the country, the dense underbrush, and frequent slashing, the connection was not secured until next morning. Late in the afternoon the right advanced, and I was ordered to General Hays, commanding Second Division, to assist him in establishing his line. At dusk the Second Corps line was as follows: Second Division on the right, its right flank near Armstrong’s Mill, with a strong skirmish-line extending down to Hatcher’s Run, thence to Dabney’s Mill, occupying an old entrenched line of the enemy’s for about 400 yards to the left; Third Division, nearly perpendicular to the Second, held the center, running through low swampy ground, thickly timbered; First Division, on left of Third Division, and extending nearly to Quaker road, with less difficult ground to move over. On the 30th I was again sent to the Second Corps, but was soon after ordered to find roads to communicate with the different divisions of the corps and to put them in good condition. I found the roads, but, owing to the heavy rains in the morning, found it impossible to get them more than barely passable by conducting the worst places. During the day the right advanced to the J. Crow house, and the left formed connection with the Fifth Corps on the Quaker road, near its junction with the Boydton plank road. On the 31st I was engaged conducting a portion of the Vaugan road, from Gravelly Run about one mile to the right, with a detail of 1,100 men form Second Corps, with orders to make a double track and corduroy the whole distance. At night I had one track nearly completed.
On the 1st of April I turned over the corduroy to an officer of the Fiftieth New York, and early in the morning examined the Second Corps line, which I found as follows: Right at J. Crow’s house, and running from thence to the junction of Quaker and Boydton roads, with the Third Division across Quarter road and First Division on its left, thrown back and holding a strong position, with most of the Fifth Corps artillery on the line. At this time I was recalled and ordered to find a road from Humphreys’ Station crossing Hatcher’s Run near Armstrong’s Mill and running in rear of Second Corps, to corduroy and open it as soon as practicable. I found the road, and ordered 800 men form the Vaughan road to commence work on it early in the morning of the 2nd, but, owing to the movement of the 2nd, these orders were countermanded and the details sent to their commands. In the afternoon I reconnoitered a salient work of the enemy on Hatcher’s Run, and reported to General Hays that it could be carried by assault. On the morning of the 2nd I was sent to the Sixth Corps to collect information for chief engineer; after performing this I remained with headquarters during the day. On the morning of the 3rd I was sent, accompanied by Lieutenant Lydecker, to examine the crossing of the Appomattox at Petersburg. I was afterward sent from Sugherland’s Station with orders to follow the Second Corps across the Appomattox at —- Mill and to examine the country from that to Bevill’s Bridge. I found that the corps ha not crossed at the place indicated, and followed it on another road, overtaking it at 10 p. m. beyond Namozine Church, on the Namozine road. I found the roads, after the passage of artillery and a few heavy wagons, in very bad condition, the country hilly, the soil a sandy clay, and in the bottom land disposed to quicksand. The road had been much cut up by the passage of the rebel army with its trains, and our movements were, in consequence, rendered more difficult and laborious. At 5 a. m. on the 4th I started on my return to headquarters, which moved out on the Namozine road to the crossing of Deep Creek. The country passed over during the day presented a great uniformity in its general features, being a continuous succession of small hills, bordered by narrow shallow ravines, which quickly carried off the water from the high ground and caused rapid improvement of the roads during dry weather. This feature I remarked became more prominent as we moved up the Appomattox, the hills gradually assuming a more imposing altitude and the ravines often presenting considerable obstacle to movement across the fields. The country moved over was comparatively open the vicinity of the main roads, and between these there was a net work of plantation roads, affording to those conversant with the country great facilities for avoiding the quagmires in the main rods and for making short cuts. The country was well adapted to retard pursuit, both from the nature of the soil and form the admirable positions everywhere presented for a stand by the enemy’s rear guard.
On the morning of the 5th I was ordered to gain information about the roads to Burke’s Station and Jennings’ Ordinary. I afterward accompanies headquarters to Jetersville, and was engaged during the afternoon in collecting information about the surrounding country, nd assisted putting the troops in position to meet an expected attack. On the 6th I was ordered to the Second Corps, and accompanied it during the day. The corps moved at 6 a. m., in three columns, toward Amelia Court-House, but striking the enemy at Amelia Springs, the order was
changed. The First Division engaged and pushed the enemy back from the heights beyond the Springs and toward Deatonsville. The Third took position a strong position, with slight breast-works, covering the village, but, owing to our numerical superiority, they were soon driven out and retreated on the road to Sailor’s Creek, a distance of about two miles, where they again made a stand, covering the cross-roads at that point. Here they were sharply pressed by the Second Corps while the Sixth Corps and cavalry came in on their flank and compelled a precipitate retreat. At this point their force was divided, a portion retreating on the road to the Appomattox, and another portion toward Rice’s Station, followed by the Sixth Corps. The Second Corps pursued to the right, breaking connection with the Sixth. Half a mile from Sailor’s Creek the rear guard was found entrenched, covering the crossing. This line was assaulted and carried, the enemy retreating across the creek and holding the crest of the hills on the opposite side. A portion of the corps was pushed across, but, owing to the darkness, the pursuit was discontinued for the night. The stream at this place was about twenty feet in width and from two to three feet in depth, impassable for artillery and trains, except over a narrow, rickety bridge; it was bordered on either side by a soft bottom land about 100 yards in width, with a hilly, open country gradually rising beyond.
Early on the morning of the 7th the pursuit was resumed, the Secretary Corps moving out three miles on the road toward Rice’s Station, and then across the country to the right, striking the Appomattox at High Bridge without meeting with opposition. The road bridge at this point was saved, and troops immediately crossed to the opposite side, which, after a brisk skirmish in the bottom land with the enemy’s rear guard, we held, the enemy not attempting to hold the redoubts near the end of the railroad bridge. The corps was then rapidly pushed forward up the railroad for a distance of two miles. From this point the Second Division continued along the railroad toward Farmville, while the First and Third Division moved to the right to strike the stage road from Cumberland Court-House about five miles from the Appomattox. At this time I was sent by General Humphreys to communicate with General Meade. On my return I followed the Second Division and found it occupying the stage and plank roads opposite Farmville. The enemy held a line about two miles from the river, covering both of these roads, their left covering the road from Jamestown. The Second was shortly after withdrawn and ordered to support the other two division, which were at the time attempting to force the enemy’s left. Our assaults were made over an open field, with the enemy entrenched, and were unsuccessful. The rebels held their position until late in the evening. On the 8th the pursuit was continued to a point on the stage road to Appomattox Court-House six miles beyond New Store, without meeting opposition. On the 9th the advance, about 12 m., reached the enemy’s line near Appomattox Court-House, and was there stopped by the negotiations for surrender.
My duties during the pursuit were confined to getting information of the country and occasionally acting as an aide-de-camp. Although the roads were in very bad condition the rapidity of our movements precluded all attempts to make more than temporary repairs of the worst places. Without an enlarged and better organized corps of pioneers we will always be embarrassed by long and rapid marches in a country such as this. I would respectfully suggest that a battalion of 600 men, with an engineer organization for each division, would not be too great,
the three battalions of a corps forming a regiment, the commanding officer being chief pioneer of the corps. From this force details could be made for he columns of troops and wagon trains; the later would be efficient train guards. During the operations around Petersburg I often left the need of such organization to supply the place of heavy, untrained, shiftless infantry details. With a force of this kind I could have secured expedition and uniformity of construction, and could have kept that portion of the line under my charge in much better repair. Such a regiment could have been camped at some central point, and in case of necessity would have answered all the purpose of a reserve. Infantry details, with some few exceptions, I have found slow, careless, and, worse than all, stupidly ignorant of what was required of them, both in throwing up fortifications and in improving roads.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
C. W. HOWELL,
First Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, Brevet Captain, U. S. Army.
Bvt. Colonel J. C. DUANE,
Chief Engineer, Army of the Potomac.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLVI, Part 1 (Serial Number 95), pp. 655-658 ↩