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Petersburg Medals of Honor: Scenes from Hatcher’s Run




Private, Co. C, 7th Michigan Infantry,
Born at Hartland, N. Y., August 9, 1842.

Some of the most thrilling and inspiring incidents occurred at the battle of Hatcher’s Run, Va., October 27, 1864. It was here that Private Alonzo Smith, of Company C, Seventh Michigan Infantry, performed an act of extraordinary daring.

His regiment, in position on the edge of the woods, had not yet taken an active part in the great fight. Presently Private Smith’s attention was drawn to a body of soldiers a short distance from him in the woods. Not knowing whether they were friend or foe he decided to investigate for himself and started out to ascertain their identity. When about thirty or forty rods from his own regimental line he satisfied himself that the soldiers were “Johnnies.” They were approaching him so fast that he could not attempt to return to his regiment without risking detection. He therefore stepped behind a large elm tree, and with his gun loaded and bayonet fixed awaited their arrival. When they had come up to within a distance of about twenty feet from him Smith stepped from his place of hiding, faced the rebel squad and boldly demanded their surrender. The Confederates were completely taken by surprise by the sudden and wholly unexpected appearance of a Union soldier, but, nevertheless, showed little inclination to comply with the order. As Smith with increased determination repeated his order, an officer, the leader of the squad, inquired whether there were any Federal troops in the vicinity and whether he was able to enforce his demand for surrender.

Pointing to the direction of his regiment, Smith replied: “There is a whole division of Union troops.” At the same time he called to his comrades nearest to him to come to his assistance. The rebels now realized that they had imprudently strayed too close to the Union lines, and surrendered. Smith marched his prisoners out of the woods to his regiment, on the way relieving the rebel color-bearer of the Confederate flag. “I think,” he observed facetiously, “I’ll be the color-bearer for a while.”

His captain, George W. LaPoint, received him as he was marching his prisoners into camp, with a broad smile. “What have you been doing, Lon? ” he asked.

“Oh,” Smith answered, “capturing a few prisoners and a flag.”


Private, Co. G, 187th N. Y. Infantry.
Born at Holland, N. Y., June 28, 1848.

The regiment remained in position, which was far in advance of the brigade to which it belonged, all day. In the evening the brigade was withdrawn and an orderly was sent out to notify Captain LaPoint to follow the brigade.

The orderly lost his way and failed to find the regiment, which subsequently was cut off from the main body by the advancing Confederates. Captain LaPoint and his brave men, however, maintained their perilous position all night, and starting out on their retreat early in the morning had to fight every inch of the ground on their way. Their retreat consumed over forty-eight hours, and had it not been for an old negro who piloted them through along a circuitous route, they would never have reached their destination. As it was the regiment had many a narrow escape from annihilation and more than once its capture seemed almost inevitable. At one time, when the situation looked almost hopeless and Confederates were crowding about the regiment from all sides, the men resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible, and above all save the colors from falling into the hands of the enemy. Color-Sergeant James Donaldson took the State flag from the staff and wrapped it around his body under his clothing, while the national flag was cut into pieces and a star given to each man, the remaining pieces being distributed likewise. Thus the enemy could have only captured the colors after the death of the whole command and the search of the body of every soldier.

The rebels were not equal to such heroic determination and in the final charge, although in overwhelming numbers, were repulsed and the brave Seventh Michigan regained the Federal lines. With Captain LaPoint on his retreat was a detachment of the First Minnesota Infantry under command of Captain J[ames]. C. Farwell.

Another incident of this battle centers about a hand-to-hand fight between Sergeant Alonzo Woodruff and Corporal John M. Howard, of Company I, First United States Sharpshooters, and a body of rebels.


Sergeant, Co. I, 1st U. S. S. S.
Born at Farmington, Mich., March 21, 1839.

General B[yron]. R. Pierce, who led the Second Brigade, Third Division, Second Army Corps, gives the following version of the occurrence, of which he was an eye witness: “I wish to call attention to the bravery displayed by Sergeant Alonzo Woodruff and Corporal John M. Howard. They were posted on the extreme left of the line as the enemy passed our left flank.

“After discharging their rifles and being unable to reload, Corporal Howard ran and caught one of the enemy who seemed to be leading that part of the line. When he was overpowered and had received a severe wound through both legs, Sergeant Woodruff went to his assistance. Clubbing his rifle, he had a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, but finally succeeded in freeing Corporal Howard and both made their escape.”

A few minutes later Woodruff noticed a rebel marching a private of his company, N. J. Standard, who was wounded, away as a prisoner.

“What?” the gritty sergeant exclaimed, “The gall of those rebels!”

And he jumped right among the rebels, rushed after his comrade and not only released Standard, but even turned the tables on his captor, making him a prisoner instead. However, the brave sergeant did not escape injury, and during the last encounter was severely wounded himself and forced to seek medical assistance as soon as he reached his lines.

Mention also must be made of the deeds of Lieutenant [Richard E.] Shannon and Private Charles A. Orr and John Williams, of Company G, One hundred and Eighty-seventh New York Infantry, who, when during this battle volunteers were asked for to rescue wounded men from between the lines, carried out their mission at the risk of their own lives. Originally thirty men had responded to the call for volunteers, but when it came to the execution of the task and the rebel fire was concentrated upon them twenty-seven abandoned the work, leaving only Orr and his two companions to bring help and aid to the wounded soldiers.

They rescued a number of men and were universally praised for their heroic efforts.


Hatcher’s Run, Va. —The siege of Petersburg was in progress nearly four months, when, on the 27th of October, 1864, the Army of the Potomac began a movement to extend its lines to Hatcher’s Run, Va., and to still further destroy the Weldon Railroad. The Second Army Corps and the Second Division of the Fifth Corps, with cavalry in advance and on the left flank, forced a passage at Hatcher’s Run and moved along the railroad until the force of cavalry and the Second Corps had reached the Boydton Plank Road where it crosses the Run. At this point a bloody combat ensued between Hancock’s and Warren’s Corps and the Confederate forces, resulting in driving the enemy back into their works, after which the Union forces withdrew to their fortified lines. The Federal losses were about 1,200 in killed and wounded; the Confederate losses about 1,700.


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 452-454
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