THRILLING EPISODES AROUND PETERSBURG1
——-General Grant’s eagerness to destroy or capture Lee’s army rather than his desire to take Petersburg led to the battle of Five Forks, Va., on April 1, 1865. Lee was striving to join Johnston and free himself from the net into which he and his army had been so skillfully driven by Grant. To hold him there and catch him was the Federal commander’s sole aim and purpose. To break through the meshes and escape was Lee’s sole object. On the Union side was General Warren, with the Fifth Corps, and General Sheridan, commanding the Cavalry Corps.
The Confederates had a line of strong works for their support, while the nature of the country made it impossible for the Federals to intrench, and they were thus presented with the alternative of fighting or falling back. The battle began late in the afternoon, the dismounted cavalry making an attack on the works, the Fifth Corps striking the enemy’s left flank. Both sides fought with great valor and stubbornness, and the battle was handsomely contested; but before nightfall the enemy were driven from their strong line of works and completely routed. Nearly 6,000 Confederates were captured, and the remainder of the demoralized army was driven toward Petersburg, pursued for miles by the victorious cavalry.
The loss on the Union side was not severe, numerically, but some of the bravest officers lost their lives on that battlefield; for example, Colonel Winthrop, who led the First Brigade of the Second Division of the Fifth Corps. He fell at the head of his soldiers, shortly after the charge was ordered. Colonel James Grindlay, of the One hundred and forty-sixth New York Infantry, at once assumed command, was the first to enter the enemy’s works and in the ensuing struggle captured two rebel battle-flags.
The contests on this battle field abound with incidents of similar inspiring bravery.
First Lieutenant Albert E. Fernald, of Company F, Twentieth Maine Infantry, was with his regiment in the last line when the battle opened, but was in the first line when the works were reached. The left of the regiment struck the works first, he being somewhat in advance, and as he cleared the breastworks ran toward a body of Confederates with a rebel color-bearer. He rushed among the crowd and secured the flag before even his regiment had gotten into the works.
Lieutenant Henry G. Bonebrake, of Company G, Seventh [sic, Seventeeth] Pennsylvania Cavalry, in his ardor to secure a Confederate flag ran after a Confederate color-bearer as soon as he had entered the works as one of the first of Devin’s Division. He caught up to the Confederate, and in a hand-to-hand struggle dispossessed his antagonist of the flag by superior physical strength.
It was a rather critical situation in which Lieutenant William W. Winegar, of Company B, First New York Dragoons [aka the 19th New York Cavalry], had to exert all his wit and summon all the presence of mind at his command. In the excitement of the battle he had become separated from his company and was still advancing when his comrades were quite a distance from him. Presently he found himself surrounded by rebels. It was then he discovered that he was alone. Retreat was impossible. He had to rely on his nerve. He ran up to a Confederate color-bearer who was standing only a few feet away and, grasping the staff of his flag, demanded the surrender of the whole crowd. The rebel was not quite willing to yield. On the contrary he quickly drew his revolver and shouted: “Never! You’ll not get this flag!” At this instant Lieutenant Winegar fired, and so effectively that the whole company was demoralized. Then, at his command, they surrendered and were marched to the rear.
Sergeant Robert F. Shipley, of Company A, One hundred and fortieth New York Infantry, ran across a flag-bearer of the Ninth Virginia Infantry, who had his back turned toward him. A gentle poke with the butt of the rifle reminded the Virginian that a Union soldier wanted his flag. “Pass those colors over to me,” Shipley shouted. The Confederate whirled around and with the flagstaff for a club was about to let it down on the head of the sergeant, but the latter, considering this the wrong answer to his command, made good use of his bayonet, which rendered further parley superfluous, and thus secured the flag.
Simultaneously with the battle at Five Forks a bombardment was opened upon the enemy’s lines of fortifications around and about Petersburg, Va., followed by a general assault on the next day, April 2d. Again the fighting was of the most determined character and the losses, even to the Union forces, correspondingly severe. The works were an extraordinarily strong line of rifle pits with deep ditches and high relief preceded by one or two lines of abatis, unusually well constructed and with a line of very strong fraise between them. At every few hundred yards were forts or batteries well supplied with artillery. They looked well-nigh impregnable, and nothing but the most resolute bravery could result in penetrating them.
The general assault was ordered shortly before five o’clock in the morning, but owing to some misapprehension the Federal pickets began to fire while the columns were still forming. This drew the enemy’s fire, not only upon the pickets but also on the dense masses in the rear, causing some loss of life, considerable confusion and threatening to break the whole plan of attack. However, by the exertions of the officers the pickets soon ceased to use their rifles and quiet was restored, the Confederates apparently not being over-anxious to exchange shots in the darkness. As soon as day began to dawn the looked-for signal was given and the assault was made. The advancing columns broke over the enemy’s picket line and, under a heavy fire of artillery and a more deadly yet less noisy fire of musketry from the parapets, moved over the main defenses. Abatis was cut away and through the openings thus made, and through those made by the enemy for their own convenience in permitting access to the front, their works were gained. After a sharp but brief conflict the Confederates yielded along the whole line to the superior valor of the Federals, whose prisoners they became after an unsuccessful attempt to escape. The entire rebel artillery fell into the hands of the victors.
In this assault the Sixty-first Pennsylvania Infantry played an important part and conducted itself so valiantly that no less than five of its members were honored with a Medal of Honor for distinguished gallantry.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert L. Orr took charge of the regiment at a critical moment when the regimental commander, Colonel [John W.] Crosby, fell, mortally wounded. His gallant leadership inspired the men and restored their confidence. Two color-bearers having been shot down, the colonel himself grasped one of the flags and carried it throughout the entire charge at the head of his regiment, which formed the apex of the famous wedge-shaped assault. One of these color-bearers was Corporal Joseph Fisher, of Company C. A bursting shell had shattered his arm and torn a wide gash in his side. He at first held on to the colors and with wonderful pluck and nerve attempted to crawl to the works and there plant his flag, but his strength failed and he fainted on the way.
The death of Colonel Crosby, the fall of the color-bearers, coupled with the temporary disappearance of the colors, caused some commotion, if not confusion, in the ranks, which, as stated, ceased when Lieutenant-Colonel Orr assumed command. However, much credit is due to Private John C. Mathews, of Company A, who rushed to the side of one of the fallen color-bearers and, holding the flag aloft, greatly aided in restoring order and confidence. For this fine display of quick action and presence of mind Colonel Orr promoted him a color-sergeant then and there.
Privates Milton Mathews and Theodore Mitchell, both of Company C, distinguished themselves by each capturing a Confederate battle-flag.
An idea of the fierce fighting near Petersburg, which commenced as early as March 31st, is given by the narrative of Corporal Franklin W. Lutes, of Company D, One hundred and eleventh New York Infantry, who won his medal on that day.
“When the order came to fix bayonets and charge,” says Corporal Lutes, “I was left guide of my regiment. Upon jumping from behind our breastworks we were met by an awful volley from the enemy, who understood our move and determined to drive us back to our fortifications. Many fell before this storm of lead, but the remainder pushed on. Suddenly I saw, in front of their lines, the rebel color-guard, proudly waving the flag of the Forty-first Alabama Infantry.
“I yelled to my comrades that we should capture those colors, and, dashing forward about ten rods in advance of our line, dropped down behind some rails that formed a small shelter between two trees. Here I watched my opportunity, and when our line got a little closer jumped over and captured color-bearer and flag and also one of the color-guard.”
Sergeant Lester G. Hack, of Company F, Fifth Vermont Infantry, adds another chapter to the many phases of the contest on the 2d of April.
“When we had driven the rebels from their works,” he says, “every man began to shift for himself, pursuing the enemy, who were fleeing helter skelter in all directions.
“About one hundred yards to my right a small body of rebels were commencing to rally round their colors. I rushed at the color-sergeant and jerked the colors from his hands, at the same time ordering the rebels around me to surrender. Some of them obeyed my command, but the majority took to flight.”
Private Frank Fesq, of Company A, Fortieth New Jersey Infantry, came face to face with the color-bearer of the Eighteenth North Carolina Infantry. In the ensuing struggle his hand was almost smashed and he was severely cut in the thigh with a rebel sabre, but he captured the colors.
While this fighting was going on the Twenty-fourth Army Corps, commanded by General Gibbon, carried Forts Gregg and Baldwin [Whitworth], which the Confederates had erected to protect their right at Petersburg. This capture practically secured possession of the place and induced the rebels, after the loss of their works, to evacuate Petersburg and retreat.
Sergeant Charles [A]. Hunter, of Company E, Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, whose regiment took part in this important action, says that the men fought for twenty-seven minutes outside of the parapet before the enemy surrendered. It was a herculean struggle, but ended with a brilliant victory for the attacking Federals, who would not yield until they accomplished their task. Sergeant Hunter had the honor of being the first color-bearer to enter Fort Gregg and plant his flag on the rebel stronghold. His conduct throughout the Appomattox campaign, and especially at Fort Gregg, was so exceptionally brave that two months later the Medal of Honor was pinned on his breast.
Captain J. Wallace Scott, of Company D, One hundred and fifty-seventh Pennsylvania Infantry, while leading his men at the battle of Five Forks, encountered a Confederate carrying the flag of the Sixteenth South Carolina Infantry, and in the ensuing struggle for its possession the captain wrested the flag from the Confederate and brought it safely off the field.
Private John Ewing, of Company E, Two hundred and eleventh Pennsylvania Infantry, performed a similar deed at Petersburg the following day, where he captured the standard of the Sixty-first Alabama Infantry.
The courage and daring required in the capture of a battle-flag can best be appreciated by those who have taken part in or witnessed a hand-to-hand combat for the possession of one. It is a struggle to the death. Although many, during the great war, attempted the capture of the enemy’s flags, few succeeded, the majority paying for their efforts with their life-blood.
While others figured conspicuously in this battle and were rewarded with the Medal of Honor, their valorous deeds must be omitted from these pages owing to the inability of the compilers to obtain their personal reminiscences.
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: Duty and Death Rather Than Dishonor
- 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. 504-508 ↩