Monthly Archives: June 2014

Foragers’ Delight

On Friday, June 24th, after the sad affair along the Jerusalem Plank Road, the Fifth Corps came up to the long line of earthworks along the road to relieve the Second Corps. The weary men marched a couple of miles east and camped in some woods for the weekend. The weather continued hot and dry. Dust and thirst were their constant companions. On Monday, the 27th they continued eastward, crossed the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, and then marched another three miles toward the James River. The total distance marched was only about five miles, but many fell by the wayside because of the intense heat.

The army was being supplied by scores of steamships that came up the James River from Hampton Roads every day. During the early weeks of the siege the U. S. Military Railroad had not yet been built, so the Union soldiers were being supplied the way they had during most of the conflict, by wagon trains. Gibbon’s Second Division was used as a strong picket line to protect the wagon trains from Rebel attacks. Their position was probably between Prince George and Hopewell.

A huge bonus in this guard duty was that food was abundant. According to Sgt. Edward Wade (Co. F, 14th CT), as recorded by Charles Page in The History of the Fourteenth Regiment, “There were quite a number of plantations around here, and plenty of hogs, cows, sheep, geese, and turkeys which were confiscated by the troops. The inhabitants had mostly cleared out and left what they couldn’t carry with them, which came very handy for us. Some of their provisions they had put in barrels and hid in the woods nearby, but soldiers’ eyes are ever open….” Wade also reported that they had to dig several wells to get suitable drinking water.

Now, here’s the weird part. This guard duty and foraging expedition lasted only for one day. On Tuesday, June 28th, at about eleven in the morning, the men were ordered to march back toward the front. But they must not have returned empty handed, because Sgt. Wade added, “We lived well for a while.”

The Road to Jerusalem

You might think, with the Civil War well into its third year, that some of the hard lessons the Army of the Potomac learned earlier in the war would have stuck. But you would be wrong. Lawrence J. Peter’s principle of organizational structures, known as The Peter Principle, states that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, and the army was a tragic example of the principle. The command structure of the Army of the Potomac was still populated with Ineffective or incompetent officers, and as the siege of Petersburg got under way, this ineptitude would cost many soldiers in blue their lives.

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had been wounded July 3rd, 1863 at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge. A nail and shards of wood, possibly from his saddle, were driven deep into his upper thigh. The wound had healed slowly, and Hancock did not return to command of the Second Corps until April, 1864. The Overland Campaign had been hard on him and his men,and, as the general’s physical reserves were drained from him, the old wound became more and more of a problem. When the corps drew up before Petersburg, he could barely walk, let alone ride a horse. On June 18th, Hancock yielded command of the Second Corps to his senior division commander, Maj. Gen. David B. Birney, a political general who had the reputation of being cold, and who was not well-liked by the men in the ranks.

Early on Wednesday, June 22nd, the Union Second and Sixth Corps held a long line of breastworks south of Petersburg along the Jerusalem Plank Road (Jerusalem is now Courtland, VA). The Second Corps, under Birney, held the northern part of the line, while the Sixth, under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright held the south, with a combined force of about 27,000 men.

The plan for the day was simple. The two corps were to work together to advance in a grand right wheel movement (like a swinging gate) to take control of the Weldon Railroad to the west and bring them up squarely against a new line of Confederate works. The north end, or pivot point, of the Second Corps line was anchored by Gen. Gibbon’s Division, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. They would have the shortest distance to march. Gen. Mott’s Division formed the center of the Second Corps line and the south end, next to the Sixth Corps, was held by Gen. Barlow’s Division. (Click here for a Wikipedia map.)

When the advance started at about 8 a.m., the Second Corps began to swing right as expected, but Wright’s Sixth Corps advanced along the Globe Tavern Road. When they ran into Wilcox’s Confederates, Wright’s men dug in and Wright refused to go any farther. A gap widened between the Sixth Corps and Barlow’s Division of the Second.

Gen. William Mahone, an aggressive division commander in Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Corps seized the opportunity and at about 3 p.m., launched an attack on Barlow’s exposed flank. Barlow’s flank collapsed. Fire from three sides quickly routed them and sent them falling back on Mott’s Division with Mahone’s men close behind. Mott’s men did little to stem the Confederate assault and fell back to the works they had left that morning. And after some fighting Gibbon’s Division also withdrew to the line parallel to Jerusalem Plank Road as did Wright’s Corps. The Union force had been soundly defeated by less than one third their number. Poor execution by Wright’s corps caused some to call for his dismissal.

Second Corps casualties in this miserable affair were almost 2,400 (650 killed or wounded, 1742 captured). Sixth Corps total casualties were only 150. As the fortunes of war go, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut saw hardly any fighting. The Confederates withdrew to their entrenchments, and two days later the Federals advanced to claim all of the land they had tried to take by force.

This unfortunate episode in the history of the Second Corps brought to light several serious problems in the Army of the Potomac. I have already alluded to the problems of command. Additionally, the men were worn out from being constantly on the go since the beginning of May. A supply base on the south side of the James River had not yet been built, so food shortages continued to be a problem. It was also learned that men could not just be replaced when they fell in battle. About his own division, Gen. Gibbon reported that on May 1st he had 6,800 men fit for duty. As of June 30th, casualties were almost 6,200, among whom were 380 officers. The ranks had been filled with 4,263 replacements. His division had, both literally and figuratively, been drained of life and was virtually unfit for further duty.

I have no doubt that,had a rested and ready Army of the Potomac arrived before Petersburg, rather than a spent and exhausted one, the city would have been quickly taken. As it was, the siege that resulted from Federal failure would stretch out over nine months.

One More River to Cross

On June 10th, 1864, the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, still at Cold Harbor and with less than 200 men fit for duty, withdrew from the breastworks they had built and went to the rear for rest. Thousands of other men fresh from the front lines drew three-days’ rations and ammunition from long trains of supply wagons. The men of the Fourteenth filled their cartridge and cap boxes and had a bite to eat, but before they were issued any rations, they were ordered back to their works.

The men were ordered to keep up a lively fire on the enemy in order to give the impression that the army was still determined to fight along that line, but Gen. U. S. Grant had another plan. Two days later, units of the Army of the Potomac began to withdraw from Cold Harbor and started south toward the James River. The men of the Fourteenth fought deep, pressing hunger as much as they fought the Rebels. Herbs and berries, and whatever else they could forage supplied their only sustenance.

At nine o’clock on the evening of June 12th, the Fourteenth Connecticut finally began to march south and west toward the river. It was a warm, sultry, moon-lit night, but the light of the moon was nearly obscured by the thick pall of dust the hung over the road and caked the sweat-dampened skin of the men. The following evening, after marching almost thirty miles and with the James River almost in sight, a band of Confederate cavalry was spotted closing fast from the rear. At nearly the same instant, a larger body of Union cavalry appeared and drove the Rebel horsemen away.

Hancock’s Second Corps was the first Union corps to reach the James. They filed into fortifications around Harrison’s and Wilcox’s Landings that had been constructed under Gen. George McClellan two years before. Early on the 14th, Warren’s Fifth Corps arrived and Hancock’s men began to cross the James. (Click here for a great Harper’s Weekly illustration of the Second Corps starting to cross at Wilcox’s Landing, courtesy of sonofthesouth.net. Be sure to scroll down.) You can find Wilcox Landing on Google Earth about three miles southwest of Charles City, VA.

The entire Second Corps was across the river by daylight on the 15th, but I am uncertain as to how the Fourteenth Connecticut made the crossing. In the History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Charles Page wrote that the regiment crossed over on a long pontoon bridge, a true feat of engineering that was built just south of Wilcox’s landing. But a soldier in the 108th New York, in Smyth’s brigade along with the 14th, wrote about the “exquisite pleasure of being afloat on the broad bosom of the deep” as they crossed on a steamship.

Regardless, the half-starved men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with their comrades in the Second Corps, endured another hard march north toward Petersburg, arriving outside the Confederate works on the 16th. They would be thrown into battle almost immediately, but all was not well with their commanding general, the “superb” Winfield S. Hancock.

Cold Harbor

Another dawn assault. It was the last thing the veterans of the Fourteenth Connecticut wanted, but they rose and filed into line before first light. At his time in the war each member of the Fourteenth carried a Sharps Model 1858 breech loading rifle and those of Company D had the special Berdans Sharpshooter modifications. The men were told to secure all equipment, anything that would clink or clank, so that they could advance as quietly as possible.

The grand assault of the Second Corps on the morning of June 3rd was the most disastrous contest of arms for the Army of the Potomac since Fredericksburg. The toll was heaviest among those regiments that had been rushed forward from Washington and other points to replace the men lost at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Their crisp uniforms and smart marching branded them as “fresh fish” and no doubt they had heard the taunts of the grizzled veterans. They went forward as ordered. It was their duty, They would earn with their blood the respect of the regiments to their right and left. Casualties were horrendous. Thousands fell in less than an hour. (Click here for a Wikipedia map of the June 3rd assault. Note Gibbon’s division.)

By contrast, casualties to the Fourteenth Connecticut were few, one killed and about ten wounded. When they advanced, the rapid fire of their Sharps rifles took a heavy toll on the Rebel pickets. The men pressed toward the stout breastworks of the Confederate main line, and when they came under heavy musket and artillery fire, they dropped to the ground and made the best of a bad situation. The men lay behind the bodies of the Rebel pickets they had shot just moments before and used their bayonets, tin cups and plates to dig up the earth and mound it over the corpses to form their own low breast works.

The Fourteenth maintained its position throughout the remainder of June 3rd. Company D kept up a lively fire on a Rebel battery, and prevented the guns from being used against them. Directly opposite the Fourteenth was the Forty-Second North Carolina. Late in the afternoon of June 4th, Confederate troops were seen massing behind their works, and the men of the Fourteenth prepared for another fight. The charging line of Rebels closed to within fifty feet and were met with a hail of lead. The men of the Fourteenth poured shot after shot from their Sharps into their foes, three shots per man to every one of theirs. Some of the North Carolina men surrendered, including an officer who asked, “Where are your men? I thought the line at this point was at least four men deep, the fire came so fast and thick.”

A tenuous and almost friendly stalemate developed. A truce was called. The dead were buried, except those interred within the Fourteenth’s breastworks, and the wounded were taken to the rear for treatment. The combatants shook hands and traded goods and had a fine time, in spite of the circumstances. And then the truce was over and the men headed back to their lines.

“Hey Yanks,” a voice called over from the Forty-Second North Carolina, “if you’uns won’t fire, we’uns won’t.”

For several days this informal truce held until one morning the voice called again. “The Sixth Alabama is going to succeed us and they fire at sight. Now, Yanks, lie low.”