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Petersburg Medals of Honor: “Lieutenant, What Say You?”




Captain, Co. D, Third Maryland Infantry.
Highest rank attained: Major.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Sept. 11. 1842.

Fort Stedman, Va., had fallen into the hands of enemy, who cunningly had taken advantage of the order allowing deserters to bring in their arms. In the disguise of such deserters they had approached the Union picket lines in small squads, overpowered and captured the pickets and gained access to the works without any alarm being given. General N[apoleon]. B. McLaughlin and nearly the entire garrison, sixteen officers and 480 men, were captured just before daybreak March 25, 1865, the darkness materially aiding the Confederates in their bold and tricky move.

With the break of day the occurrence revealed itself to the Federal commanders operating in the vicinity and determined efforts to recapture the fort were made immediately. The Third Maryland Infantry met large detachments of the enemy, sent to capture the adjoining Fort Haskell (see page 388), and drove them back into Fort Stedman, passing the gate and forcing the Confederates to retreat into the camp, from which they themselves had only shortly before driven the One hundredth Pennsylvania. The entrance to the fort, however, had been gained and the Pennsylvania boys now hurried to the support of their gallant comrades from Maryland. It was decided to follow up the enemy and charge the fort. This was done so successfully by an attack from two sides that within a short time the Federals were once more masters of the stronghold, capturing nearly the entire Confederate force. An occurrence that followed is the subject of an interesting story told by Captain Joseph F. Carter of Company D, Third Maryland Infantry. The captain was in command of his regiment on the expedition to recapture the fort, while the One hundredth Pennsylvania was led by Major N. J. Maxwell:

“Seeing that Major Maxwell was in control of the fort,” says Carter, “I moved out to intercept the retreat of the rebels, who had advanced to our newly built railroad leading to City Point and were thus between our lines. Somehow or other my men, who were busy in gathering up prisoners outside the fort, became separated from me. I did not notice their absence, but kept right on, until I came to a cut in the road leading into Petersburg, with banks about ten feet high. Here, to my surprise, I found a rebel regiment which had selected this place for shelter from the heavy fire of our artillery stationed in the rear of our main line. They had been sent to the rear of Fort Stedman to seize the railroad and there received orders to retire, but were confused and waited for further orders. The recapture of Fort Stedman by our troops had cut off the retreat to their own lines. There were about three hundred of them just filing into the road getting ready to stay the advance of our skirmishers who were following up their retreat, when I appeared on the bank and shouted to the greatly surprised Confederates on the road below to surrender. A captain in command retorted:

‘”Who in hell are you?’

‘”A Yank,’ I answered, adding quickly that we had recaptured Fort Stedman, were complete masters of the situation and that he could not possibly get back with his men to his lines. The rebel captain, however, who evidently had no knowledge of this fact, did not propose to give in so easily. ‘Well,’ he remarked, ‘where are your men?’

“Then came a surprise on my side. Looking back of me I made the embarrassing discovery that I was alone. Surely this was a tight fix to be in, but there was no other way out of it except by strong argument and explanation. While conversing with the captain, who seemed to realize the situation, I caught sight of one of our staff officers, about 200 yards away, signaling to our batteries to cease firing on Fort Stedman, which was now occupied by our troops.

“Pointing at him I continued:

‘”Captain, see that staff officer? He is ordering the firing to be stopped. The whole country around here is in our possession. It’s no use, you can’t get away.’

“That satisfied him and he surrendered. He asked me what he should do and I told him to march his men off by the right flank down the road to our rear, intending to bring the whole regiment to our camp alone, but when the rebel column emerged from the cut and thus became exposed, our troops renewed their fire and threatened death and destruction to my so willing and obedient prisoners. I therefore directed the captain and his men to throw down their guns and remain in the cut until our men would come up and take them.

“Again they followed out my instructions. I then signaled to our men to cease their fire and come up, but was not understood, and, being the only one exposed, became the target for a lot of General Hartranft’s raw recruits. I cannot say that I enjoyed that part very much, and not experiencing any desire to be shot down by our own troops, I descended into the cut and joined the rebels. The captain was an agreeable person to chat with, and we conversed about his future prospects as a prisoner, when my attention was drawn to a rebel flag a short distance away. A lieutenant and color-guard of six men were moving along the bank trying to make their escape. I broke off my conversation abruptly and started after them, picking up a loaded gun on the way.

“Before the lieutenant realized what was happening he had the rifle placed against his breast and was commanded to surrender the flag he was carrying.

“The lieutenant was game and promptly replied: ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll give you that flag! And furthermore I want to tell you that you are my prisoner. Give me your gun,’ and at the same time the color-guard raised their guns and made a most expressive show of resistance.

“Here I was in a pretty mess. The rebel guns were raised at my head. If I pulled my trigger I would sound my own death-knell. Surrounded by rebels, beyond the help of my own troops, it would have been folly to carry the bluff farther, so I made a virtue out of necessity and handed the lieutenant my gun.

“And thus I, who only a few minutes ago had captured a whole regiment, was made a prisoner myself. All my arguing as to him and his men being cut off brought only the curt reply, ‘Come along, we’ll see.’

“Taking me in their midst the lieutenant and guard moved across the open field in the direction of our works, thinking them their own lines. Immediately our batteries opened on us with at least twenty guns with spherical case shell, which tore up the ground all around us. There was a great chance of me losing my game if the lieutenant saw fit to change his course and pass around our works, as it almost seemed he would. Visions of Libby prison with all its horrors looming up before my eye determined me to make a break and at least give the rebels a run. But the guard was on to my intention and one of them yelled at me: ‘You damned Yank, you try to run and we’ll blow you to hell.’ So I gave up the attempt to escape. Presently I noticed three soldiers in blue about sixty yards away from us. I recognized them to be men of the One hundredth Pennsylvania and yelled as loud as I could: ‘Boys, I am a prisoner here!’ They came toward us on a run. ‘All right, Captain,’ one of them spoke up, ‘we’ll save you.’ Turning to the lieutenant he continued: ‘ Lieutenant, what say you now? I guess the tables are turned. You are our prisoner.’

“The rebel officer made no long reply, but merely said: ‘I surrender.’

“I now quickly seized the colors and turned my attention to the rebel regiment in the ravine. Waving the flag to signal our men to cease firing, however, had the result of increasing it, so much so that the rebel color-guard advised me to drop the flag. I tried another method. Throwing down the flag, I trampled upon it and waved my sword over my head. This had the desired effect. Our men rested their guns, but on the other hand my action had been watched by the Confederates from their works about 200 yards away. Incensed at the indignity to their colors they poured a most terrific fire in our direction, rendering our position as critical as before. I finally picked up the colors from the ground and started on a dead run with my prisoners for our works, being forced to go for sixty yards towards the enemy, and expose myself to their concentrated fire, before I reached the cover of our own works. The rebel regiment was shortly afterward brought in as prisoners by Hartranft’s men.”


Fort Stedman. —Early on the morning of March 25, 1865, the Confederate forces under General Gordon assaulted the Federal lines in front of Parke’s Ninth Corps, which held the Appomattox River toward the Union left, and carried Fort Stedman and a part of the line to the right and left of it, turning the guns of the fort against the Federals. But the Union troops on either flank held their ground until reserves were brought up, when the Confederates were driven back to their lines. The losses sustained by the Ninth Corps were 68 killed, 337 wounded and 506 missing, while those sustained by the Confederates were 2,681, among whom were 1,900 prisoners.


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. 497-499
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