DUTY AND DEATH RATHER THAN DISHONOR1
At the time Grant was bending every energy and all resources to hold Lee’s army in check and all military operations centered around the Appomattox campaign, the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery was serving as infantry, being attached to what was called the “Irish” Brigade, First Division Second Corps, the division commander being General Nelson A. Miles. Corps organizations were broken up, and all around Petersburg to the west and south, over a radius of thirty miles, the Federal troops were fighting by brigades in separate actions. Yet, so able were regimental, brigade, division and corps commanders, so thoroughly did the rank and file understand the situation, that together these individual actions revolved around and were practically parts of the great combat of the Appomattox, the Battle of Five Forks.
On the morning of April 2d , Miles, in pursuit of the enemy, arrived at White Oak Road. With the determination to bring the rebels to a standstill he pushed his brigade in line of battle towards their works, resolved to carry them. The works were in plain view, but not a man was in sight, not a rifle cracked to break the silence of the early morning. The brigade halted, suspicious of a trap or an ambush. The deserted look of the works appeared unnatural, the very silence seemed to call for caution. All eyes were turned towards the works, every man in the brigade was full of anxiety to know the secret they concealed.
General Miles observed that it would be necessary to call for volunteers to take the lead, advance through the woods and ascertain the situation. This call was responded to and Private James Thompson, of Company K, Fourth New York Heavy Artillery, one of the little squad that volunteered, lived to tell the following of what happened:
“Five other comrades, my brother and myself, stepped to the front following the call of General Miles for volunteers, and received our instructions directly from the general. We were to advance about fifty feet apart, with our rifles at a ready, and to fire the instant we discovered the first sign of an enemy concealed in ambush. When we had reached a certain tree he pointed out to us one of our number was to climb it and swing his cap as a signal for the brigade to come on if we found that all was well. We started, my brother first, I next, and the other five in their regular order from right to left. After advancing perhaps one-fourth of the way, through the slashing, we had all bunched together, and proceeded in this manner perhaps fifty yards farther, when we were surprised to see an outpost of the enemy of about fifty men rise out of the slashing a little to the left of the road and within fifty feet of us. They ordered us to throw down our guns and ‘come in.’
“What could we do? We had the secret of a signal that would have drawn that brigade of brave boys in our rear into this death-trap, where the enemy could have shot them down at their leisure. We knew very well that if we surrendered without giving the alarm we would be compelled to give up the signal or die, so we decided our only course was to give the alarm and die where we were. We fired, and received their volley of fifty pieces at a distance of scarcely 100 feet.
“Six of our number were stretched on the ground, five dead, one desperately wounded, and one with several holes through his clothes but without a scratch on his body, who made his way back to the rear and to his company as soon as possible. Our troops heard the alarm shots and the volley that followed, and knew at once what had happened to our little squad. The enemy’s position was uncovered. The battle commenced at once. Our brigade held the position where they were, while our Second Division swung around and took them on the flank, taking a great many prisoners and compelling them to evacuate their works and hunt another position to the rear. After the battle was over our little squad was not forgotten. A detail was sent to bury them, which found me still in the land of the living, lying with my dead comrades all this time between the contending lines, praying for a ball to come and end my misery. My brother, Allan Thompson, was the one who got back to the lines in safety and made this report. He also received a Medal of Honor.”
The charge upon the Confederate works at White Oak Road brought out another brave deed, of which First Lieutenant Stephen P. Corliss, of Company F, Fourth New York Heavy Artillery, was the hero. The enemy had a battery posted on an elevation near the South Side Railroad where it intersected with the White Oak Road leading into Petersburg, and was able to do great damage to the advancing Federals from that position. The order came to capture the battery, which was protected by infantry. The brigade to which the Fourth New York Artillery were attached as infantry started to carry out the command. The enemy’s fire was at once concentrated upon the advancing brigade with such telling effect that the advance was, for a time at least, checked. Again the forward movement was ordered and taken up, to be checked a second time. For a third time the advance was resumed. At this juncture the color-sergeant of one of the regiments was shot and the colors fell to the ground. Lieutenant Corliss, who witnessed the fall of the flag, at once dismounted, picked up the colors and remounted. With flag in hand he rode at the head of the brigade into the enemy’s works and placed them there. The colors were closely followed by the enthused men, the works were carried and the rebels routed utter defeat. Lieutenant Corliss’ action contributed greatly in the achievement a splendid victory.
Final Operations Around Petersburg, Va. —When Grant went into winter quarters before Petersburg he had determined to resume his campaign against Lee on the 29th of March, 1865.
The heavy rains, however, prevented active operations until the 2d of April, when the general assault commenced and was pursued along Grant’s whole line, which extended from Appomattox to Dinwiddie Court House. The day preceding Lee was defeated at Five Forks, where Sheridan gained a signal victory. This defeat seemed to bewilder Lee, and as he could not withstand the vigorous assault of the 2d —his lines having been broken in numerous places—he noiselessly withdrew his army toward the Danville Road at nightfall.
Before sunrise on the 3d Parke had gone through the enemy’s lines and taken Petersburg. Grant now ordered Sheridan to push toward the Danville Road, while Meade was in close pursuit up the Appomattox.
In the afternoon Grant received word from Weitzel that Richmond had been taken early in the morning and was securely held. Notwithstanding these victories Grant was apprehensive of Lee’s escape, and consequently set out in pursuit of him.
The Federal losses at Five Forks were about 800 killed and wounded; the Confederate losses 8,500.
At the assault and fall of Petersburg the Federals lost 3,300 and the Confederates 3,000.
Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Introduction
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: At the “Breakthrough”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Ride to Almost Certain Death
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Under Special Protection of Providence
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Three Examples of Soldierly Devotion
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Recaptured Colors and Took Two Prisoners
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: 3 Men Capture 27 “Johnnies”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Captured, But Their Colors Were Saved
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Retained Command Despite Severe Wounds
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: He Paused at the Side of His Dead Captain
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Hero of Fort Haskell
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Gallant Colonel and His Brave Adjutant
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Bayonet Charge Put the Rebels to Flight
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Too Young for Enlistment, But Served
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: “Well Done, Taylor”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Equal to the Emergency
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: An Improvised Bodyguard
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Fall of Fort Harrison
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Message Delivered Under Difficulty
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Thought Only of Saving the Flag
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: The Story of a Youthful Hero
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Sergeant Who Wisely Disbelieved
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Rounded Up Forty Rebels
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Scenes from Hatcher’s Run
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Rebel Charge That Failed
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: “I Was Mad as a Hornet”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Risked Being Blown to Atoms at Dutch Gap Canal
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Swam the River Under Difficulties
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Valorous Deeds at Hatcher’s Run
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: “Lieutenant, What Say You?”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Heroism In the Hour of Reverse
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Thrilling Episodes Around Petersburg
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Attracted General Custer’s Attention
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Engineer, Surgeon and Hero
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: “They Can’t Drive You Out of Here”
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Hero from the South
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Made Good Use of the Enemy’s Weapons
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: In Full View of the Enemy
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Rewarded Twice
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Gallant Vermonters
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: A Profitable Reconnoissance
- Petersburg Medals of Honor: Language More Forceful Than Elegant
- Between 1898 and 1905: James M. Pipes to to the Compilers of the Volume Deeds of Valor
- Newspaper Article: Powhatan Beaty, 5th USCT, Co G
- NP: October 3, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer: AP Reports, September 29-30
- NP: January 12, 1888 Wheeling (WV) Intelligencer: Flagstaff of the 12th WV
- OR XL P1 #292: Medals of Honor, June 15-July 30, 1864
- OR XLII P1 #350: Medals of Honor, August 1-December 31, 1864
- OR XLVI P1 #178: Medals of Honor, Feb 5-7 and Mar 25, 1865
- OR XLVI P1 #266: Medals of Honor, Mar 31-Apr 9, 1865
- “Paddy the Horse” Ginley Wins a Medal of Honor at Reams Station
- 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. 501-504 ↩