Siege of Petersburg

Final Breaking of the Enemy's Lines by the Sixth Army Corps, April 2, 1865, at the Siege of Petersburg

This memorable siege extending over a period of several months, was full of exciting, eventful fights, but none more so than the final assault on the main works, April 2, 1865. For three nights the Sixth Corps, which had been selected by General Grant to break the main line of the formidable-looking fortifications in and near its front to its left, around Petersburg, because of its known reliability for any work assigned it, had been ordered out between thelines as noiselessly as possible about midnight, and directed to lie in line of battle on the ground about two hundred yards from the enemy's picket line for the purpose of a morning assault. The First Brigade of the Third Division composed of five regiments, the One Hundred and Sixth and One Hundred and Fifty-first New York, Fourteenth New Jersey, Eighty-seventh Pennsylvania and Tenth Vermont Volunteer Infantry, was formed in three lines, the Tenth Vermont being on the right and the One Hundred and Sixth New York on the left forming the front line, the brigade being on the left of the Division and Corps near Fort Fisher on the side towards Hatcher's Run. As the distance between the works of the belligerent forces was the least here of any point along the front of the Sixth Corps probably, as claimed by Lieutenant-Colonel George B. Damon, in his official report, the colors of the Tenth Vermont were the first over the enemy's works in the Third Division though it is difficult to understand how in the darkness and confusion anyone could positively  know this.

The nights were cold and after the first one those who were fortunate enough to possess a rubber raincoat, as I was, put it on over the blue overcoat which, when the sword belt was on made one fairly comfortable even after lying on the ground for a long time. We were not allowed to talk or move about which made the blood sluggish, and lying on the cold frosty ground most of the night, together with the surroundings, etc., was not conducive to cheerfulness, warmth or comfort. To our right, in front of Petersburg, the artillery firing was unusually brisk and even appalling. The damp heavy powder smoke-laden atmosphere was stifling as the dense smoke from the ominous artillery fire of hundreds of guns all along the lines from Richmond to Five Forks, about forty miles, except where General Park's Corps and the Sixth Corps were, where later in the night in front of the Sixth Corps, the grand finale of the battle that was to soon bring peace to our stricken country and rest to two valiant armies, was to take place, settled to the ground, which added to the gloom of a terrible night of waiting and suspense, as had been the previous two when so situated.

The enemy's earthworks were very formidable,[1] fully eight feet high and in places still higher between thickly interspersed forts and redoubts and especially in front of our brigade, in front of which works was a ditch or moat about eight feet deep and wide, partially filled with water, bridged at intervals of about fifty yards and in some places much less, with a single log hewn flat on top for the use of the pickets. In front of this moat there were three not "one or two" as stated in General H. G. Wright's official report—lines of heavy abatis  and chevaux-de-frise  heavily wired together. With a strong force well in hand behind this formidable array of works it would have been impregnable against any assaulting column of infantry alone. The pioneer corps, Capt. S. H. Perham commanding had been assigned the unenviable task of cutting away the abatis  and chevaux-de-frise  in places as it advanced with us to enable the men to pass. During the night word was passed along the line that it was not known from which flank the movement to advance would begin, but to follow it whichever way it came from by advancing as it reached each company. This threw great responsibility on me as my company was in the front line and on the right of the brigade. I knew nothing of the signal gun for the general advance to be fired from Fort Fisher at "about 4.45" o'clock a. m.; indeed if it was fired amid the din I did not know it or its significance. I had just been promoted Captain of Company G, overslaughing several other First Lieutenants who had been less regularly on the fighting line.

To the right of Company G, there was no connecting line that could be seen, owing to the darkness. Not then knowing the division formation I was much perplexed over this, and finally after directing the men on the left of the Company, which joined the next company to the left, to advance with the line in case the movement forward commenced with the left flank, I concluded for obvious reasons to take my position on the right of my company, where intently watching and listening for any advance in that direction, supposing I could hear it and that I could rely on the left guide of my Company to do as directed, I paid no attention to the left flank; but shortly after the line had advanced and before any firing had occurred in our front on the advancing column, one of the men, more conscientious than the guide on the left of the Company, who had heard my orders to him came to me and said the line to the left had advanced a little before, but it had done so so silently everything on the person, canteens, etc., that would make a noise having been tied fast, in the darkness, smoke and din the advance hadn't been seen or heard by me to the left of the Company where it commenced.

There was no time for investigation or anything but prompt, vigorous action, and greatly annoyed at being placed in a false position and for other obvious reasons for I was no shirk in battle, I sprang to the front of my Company intent on catching up with the column, directed the Company to follow me which it did at first, but in the darkness that was the last seen of it, for as in most battles, the men broke, only the most intrepid taking the lead, and what became of such in this instance is not known. It would have been much better, easier and safer to have advanced when the movement first commenced, as the enemy's pickets, except such as fell back into their works, threw down their arms without firing and surrendered; and those behind their works were largely in bed fast asleep except a few in a strong fort and redoubt in front of the First Brigade, to the left of where my Company lay in line, who seemed to have been alert all night. These, as soon as they discovered we were assaulting, swept the ground we and others advanced over in front of the works—the two lines of works here of the two armies being about two thousand yards apart more or less—with grape and cannister, the firing commencing just as I was about half way to the enemy's works, together with desultory musketry firing, showing that none of our men were yet over them. The enemy fought most desperately in this fort, for two hours or so after daylight. Indeed, it is plain to me that it momentarily abandoned the fort at first until the bulk of our men had passed by them to the left towards Hatcher's Run, and then almost at once reoccupied it, as the discharge of artillery from it was almost continuous excepting a few minutes after I entered the enemy's works, until we took it about 8.15 o'clock a. m. The fort was to my left front, hence I did not approach it directly, but moved along to it later on after entering the works. The first redoubt from the fort about one hundred and fifty yards towards Petersburg had given up without much resistance there being but one or two guns in it, after the first weak musketry volley, the men in and infantry supporting it, running into the woods in rear, such as did not surrender. The second redoubt from the fort towards Petersburg had no artillery in it and was easily taken.

As soon as it was light enough to see, some of our heterogeneous force in which were two or three artillerymen—for there was no organized separate Union command anywhere either inside or about the enemy's works here—turned the enemy's gun from this first redoubt after moving it to a more advantageous point overlooking the fort, on its intrepid little party which from the first was supported by about a hundred of its infantry in the brush and woods—a jungle—in rear of and running down a small ravine passing between the fort and redoubt to within twenty yards of the fort and its right environment or earthwork, until finally some of our men in the last assault on it sprang into the fort, clubbed and knocked down with their discharged muskets the few remaining men who had not fled or been killed, some of whom, when lying on their backs, seizing the lanyards just within reach and persistently endeavored to fire the pieces, and were only prevented by some of our men standing dramatically over the prostrate men with inverted guns and fixed bayonet ready to impale them if they persisted. This ended the fighting in front of where the First Brigade lay before the assault, and probably in front of the whole Sixth Corps, at any rate in front of the Third Division all the works having been taken, the capture of these two works being the most difficult being nearer together than any other similar fortifications in the Sixth Corps front, which made it the hardest point to take in its front, especially as the ground was high and the enemy's artillery commanded the gradually sloping ground in front and to its right and left. There were three or four pieces of artillery in this fort which also fell into our hands. The woods a quarter of a mile in rear of the fort was swarming with armed and unarmed Johnnies. It was plucky fighting on both sides, for those engaged.

But what had become of Company G was a quandary, as not a man could be found. I had run with all speed possible in order to get over the shell-swept ground as soon as practicable in front of the enemy's works supposing some of my men would follow me as usual, and within a few minutes had scaled the works, having caught up with the advance which had been delayed by the abatis, etc., greatly wondering at the few who had really reached the works which were actually taken, all other flowery reports to the contrary notwithstanding, for a distance of about six hundred yards or more including finally the redoubts and fort by a very few determined men such as generally lead any assaulting column and cannot be turned back except greatly outnumbered; but this number was rapidly increased by stragglers. There was no jumping into the ditch in front of the works, and out again in my vicinity, for as our men were not then taught to scale perpendicular walls eight or ten feet high, they could not have gotten out of the ditch alone even if they had gotten in and wanted to; besides, it had several feet of water in it almost continuously, and for obvious reasons others under stress of circumstances could not stop to help them out if they wanted to even if any had fallen into the ditch by accident, and they certainly wouldn't have gotten into it in any other way in the circumstances. The ditch was the same as found around permanent forts, very  formidable, and if anything even deeper. The works and protections in front were wonderfully  strong; more so here than at any other point in front of the Sixth Corps. The redoubt and ugly-looking fort on a slight eminence in front of the First Brigade a little to the left of where my Company lay in line, had caused most of our brigade and other organizations within reach of the fort's guns, to oblique—as I could see them doing it by the momentary flash of the enemy's artillery from this fort which lit up the ground in its front and on either side—both to the right and left but largely to the left where most of such as went over the works in the assault to the left  of the fort probably turned along them towards Hatcher's Run—as the enemy once flanked in their work would fall back from them except where there were forts, etc.,—leaving the redoubt and fort with some half dozen pieces of field artillery, which belonged to the rest of our corps to help take to be subdued by such of the more intrepid of the Third Division and other commands, as marched straight up to the rack whether there was anything in it or not. At any rate, so far as I know, no considerable number of our regiment or of any other regiment was in the enemy's works opposite where the First Brigade of the Third Division lay in line before assaulting shortly before daylight, nor was any of the Tenth Vermont, or any other of our forces in the last fort taken for obvious reasons for any length of time till it was finally  taken about 8.15 o'clock a. m. There was not a score of men in sight as soon as light enough to see, for two hundred yards inside the works, everyone acting independently, where I first entered them to the right of the two redoubts and fort with others of the assaulting men only two of whom were killed immediately near the works in the assault, one just in front, and another whose body fell on the front slope of the works where I entered, which shows comparatively speaking, what a bloodless affair it was at this point, which was generally the case, too, all along the line except where there were forts, etc., and how little resistance there really was in front of the First Brigade excepting that of the one fort which so stubbornly held out. There were so few of our men in the works it was lonesome after some of the men had moved to the left in the darkness and could not be seen any distance away by such as didn't know it was the plan of battle to go to the left; and not one of the enemy even after dawn could be seen for long intervals, dead or alive. What few had been in the works except such as surrendered, mostly ran half-clad, save such as were timely warned, into the woods back of the works before and at the time we entered them, and hid. It was the most remarkable case of stampede and temporary disorganization on the part of both veteran armies seen during the war. The formidable-looking works supposed to be fairly well manned, which we had faced for months, had had their effect on our army, and the Confederates being surprised and supposing they were attacked by an overwhelming number, but were really not so confronted in their works except as the men accumulated moving to the left, largely gave up in the darkness without a struggle. Surely God was with us in this latter case. We could never have assaulted these works successfully by daylight, even with the force then in them of the enemy.

Rather cautiously after waiting a little inside the works for the gray of the morning, as there were not men enough to be aggressive in the darkness, I, with a couple of men, there being no other officer in the neighborhood so far as I could see, commenced to investigate the cabins to make sure the premises were as safe as appearances would indicate. An investigation of one was startling. On approaching it in the early gray of the morning, and peering in at the open door, two of the enemy were dimly observed, one lying on the floor, and the other sitting upon the edge of his bunk apparently hesitating about dressing, but on cautiously going near the door which faced the east and craning my neck so as to get one eye on the men without exposing my body, I rather doubtfully demanded their surrender, but they had already made their final surrender to their Maker; they were both dead. The sitting man's body had been so perfectly balanced when instantly killed it had remained in its lifelike sitting position. I had seen one other such case during the war before. The discovery that he was dead was startling in the dim morning light which, on leaning forward after a step inside the cabin, revealed the pallor of his face and look of death. Afterwards gradually drifting and stumbling along the works with others a short distance in the gloam of the morning to the enemy's right to where the fort was, about seventy-five of our men, the odds and ends of many different commands, frequently increased by stragglers who had not entered the works at first, were gathering to assault the fort containing the guns which had shelled us so fiercely when approaching the enemy's works, those undelayed by investigation as I was delayed, reaching it first. Finding none of my men here or a familiar face—although it is stated in the regimental history that Lieutenant-Colonel George B. Damon and Major Wyllys Lyman were there—and seeing that the force was small and made up promiscuously, and that as great a show as possible should be made, I joined in the assaults, the result of which has already been given. It's a mistake to suppose this was a large affair; it was a hot fight for those engaged, but all told on both sides, though, there wasn't three hundred men. The Second Brigade never came to us during the struggle. The fight was wholly by a heterogeneous lot of officers and men separated from their commands by darkness in the general assault. As this was the first fight I was in with my new Company, being but a short time with it, and unfamiliar with the men's faces, a goodly number of whom were recruits, and as all in such circumstances would be powder and dirt-stained and very smutty, and as the men were unusually bundled up for the occasion, it is possible that some of them may have taken part in the capture of this fort unknown to me, the same as I did. Corp. George W. Wise has since told me he did.

The fighting being over on this part of the line, and not knowing we were to go along the line to the left or that the Sixth Corps had any business in front of the Corps on its left such being unusual, and never dreaming, being unable to see in the darkness, so few of us had taken our part of the enemy's works alone, i. e. the redoubts and fort—which together with the contiguous breastworks covered our brigade front—but of course knowing  we had  captured the fort alone, and wondering if it could be possible that others could have followed the enemy's main body into the forest in rear of their works when first entering, where I would possibly find some of my men, I commenced to investigate. Going about a quarter of a mile into the woods alone, soon individual members of the enemy looking comical enough, commenced to appear from their hiding places here and there half-clad, some without hats, pants, shoes, guns, etc., showing how completely they had been surprised, offering to surrender, but were afraid when directed to go to the rear of our lines to go alone through them for fear of being misunderstood and shot. In less time than it takes to tell it, three comical-looking long haired, shriveled, half-clad and starved cadaverous-looking specimens of humanity had surrendered within a space a rod square, the woods being full of them, when it dawned on me that there could be no Federal force in that direction, or these men would have been taken and that I might be out of luck if I happened to strike alone one or more of the unbeaten enemy with loaded gun; and so drawing my loaded revolver ready for emergency, I returned to the works with my numerous prisoners, others surrendering en route, just in season to see General Grant, who had probably been waiting for information that the fort had been taken, and his retinue of about one hundred pass inside the enemy's works by the fort we had taken, going towards Petersburg. He was mounted on a proud-stepping dark charger, dressed with unusual care and never appeared to better advantage. The occasion inspiring it, he was a perfect picture of a conquering hero, but seemed all unconscious of it. The artist who could put Grant and his suite on canvas as he appeared then would win renown. As Grant's eye caught the motley group of prisoners with me, who were regarding him with silent, open-mouthed wonder, he slightly smiled, drew in his horse a little as though to speak or in doubt of his safety, seeing the rebs had guns, but finally dashed on, an impressive picture not only in the midst of war, but surrounded by grand fortifications and the victorious and defeated living, wounded, dying and dead, real  heroes of both the blue and the gray, never to be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to see it.

But by this time, it being about 9 o'clock a. m. or later, being nearly melted from over-exertion and affected with nausea from long fasting and rushing about fighting and looking for my men from one point to another, clad with two overcoats, which I had no time to remove or place to leave them if I did, being without food and not able to find any of my men, and feeling bad and worried about them, I felt constrained to go to the hospital joining my Company which had gotten together meantime by probably going along that portion of the enemy's comparatively fortless works which when once broken would have to be evacuated, about two miles to the right of where I had gone over the enemy's works, towards Petersburg, the next morning. As nothing but straggling men, the best fighters who lead everyassaulting column were found from the time I entered the enemy's works before dawn up to about 9 o'clock a. m., owing to the assault having been made in the dark, nothing was thought of it at the time as I knew that where I had been all commands were similarly disorganized. It was fortunate for the Union forces, though, there was so few of the enemy behind its works near and in the fort before mentioned; though as a whole taking the prisoners, the major part of those who ran into the woods, together with those who stood their ground and fought us, their number greatly exceeded ours inside  their works at this point. It was the easiest fight of the war, but we expected it to be the hardest. But there were a goodly number of dead and wounded about the last fort taken, where about a hundred or more of the enemy had caused a needless sacrifice of life. There was never any doubt but that we should take the fort from the first, but it did seem provoking that the whole corps should shy by it in the darkness and leave it for a few to do and especially not make its work more thorough in taking prisoners; but I've always felt reconciled to it, as it gave me such an excellent view of General Grant at such an important time in his life.

It has always seemed strange that it wasn't fully understood by all Company Commanders that a signal gun would be fired from Fort Fisher "about 4.45 o'clock a. m." for obvious reasons, and that the Sixth Corps was to turn to its left after entering the enemy's works and sweep them in that direction to Hatcher's Run in front of the other Corps. Of course it and the fact that Grant's headquarters were close to the left of the First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Corps (See Grant's Memoirs p. 310), shows that he had implicit faith in its ability to break the enemy's line of works and a possible doubt as to whether the other three corps including the Second, all of which were to the left of the Sixth, could do so or not in front of where they respectively laid. It was fortunate, however, that it wasn't fully understood that the Sixth Corps was to turn to its left and sweep the works as in case it had been the men who ran into the woods which was full of them, in rear of their works would have probably retaken some portions of them and caused still larger unnecessary loss of life. Probably it was thought instead, the enemy would move along their works to their right towards Hatcher's Run, no one ever dreaming they would become quite as badly disorganized at once on our entering their works as we necessarily were after passing through the obstructions in front of the same; but being surprised and on suddenly waking up, and finding us right amongst them, stampede followed. Aside from the foregoing defects in not having the plan of attack, etc., fully understood, the preliminaries of the assault were most admirably carried out; but the Creator knew what was best, and His unseen hand predominated. The slight shelling during the night to try and discover if we were preparing to attack proved futile notwithstanding it did kill and wound a few men in our Brigade. No shells reached Company G, prior to its advancing. My Company being on the right of the Brigade, owing to the long interval between it and the next Brigade on its right, there were fewer men of either army where I entered the works than any where else in the neighborhood. Most of the enemy from here ran to the redoubt and fort just to their right before mentioned and into the woods for obvious reasons, so fortunately there was hardly any resistance at this point; still I saw the only two dead Union soldiers in front of the enemy's work and our Brigade right here, except after the fort was taken.

General Grant was more highly pleased with what the Sixth Corps did than any other. He says in effect in his memoirs (ibid. p. 309), among other things, that General Wright with the Sixth Corps "Swung around to his left and moved to Hatcher's Run sweeping everything before him," and after reaching there (ibid. p. 310), Wright "Sent a regiment to destroy the South Side railroad just outside the city." But does he mention any other Corps so pleasingly? Let the misinformed or biased historians, and others of the so-called "best" Corps of the Army of the Potomac, read what Grant says of each in this fight in his Memoirs. He cannot be accused of fulsome praise in regard to any Corps, but he does mention in flattering terms the clean, brilliant work of the old reliable Sixth Corps which twice almost single-handed saved the National Capital during the last ten months of the war. Again here , too, at Petersburg as in the Shenandoah Valley, it was more conspicuous than any other Corps in ringing down the great stage curtain of this memorable siege.

Had a long strong skirmish line with an occasional reserve been deployed at right angles to the enemy's works and swept to Hatcher's Run or further in rear of their works, probably many thousand more prisoners would have been captured than were. As it was, the Sixth Corps took 3,000 prisoners, which Grant, whose headquarters were at Dabney's Saw Mill (ibid. p. 310), says he met going out of their works just as he was going over them to join the victorious Sixth Corps within the enemy's works where I saw him a few minutes later as before related. Grant does not say anything in his Memoirs about any other Corps having captured any prisoners, in case they did. Probably similar conditions existed all along the lines taken in this closing, most unique and interesting battle of this historic siege so far as both sides were concerned as herein described; and this is one reason I have so fully gone into details never before having seen them as fully given by any eye witness and participant. Of course General Grant not being inside the lines he nor probably any other general officer at the moment of their being taken, was not an eye witness to the remarkable, stirring and unusual scenes of the moment and which immediately followed, and could not go fully into such details in their reports.

[1]The size of these redoubts, Fort, adjacent works, moat, etc., in front of our brigade in any description I have ever seen have always been greatly dwarfed. I fought over them about three hours and know whereof I write.