Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Nickels Saved

Darkness ended the fight at Ream’s. Confederate Generals A. P. Hill and Henry Heth had managed the battle brilliantly. Nightfall ended the fighting. Federal reinforcements were rushing forward. With no reinforcements of his own to be had, Hill disengaged his troops, withdrew northward to the defensive perimeter around Petersburg, and the Weldon Railroad remained under Federal control.

On the battlefield, hundreds of small, private battles went on. In History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry, Charles D. Page included this account of Sgt. Henry Lydall (Company F). Lydall tells of his own fight to escape the battlefield, and of his dedicated service to one of the regiment’s officers. (I have made a few minor edits to make it more readable.)

In the afternoon of August 25th, 1864, during a charge upon the Confederate batteries on the battlefield of Ream’s Station, our advancing line suddenly broke and retreated. Overwhelmed by the terrific fire that was raining down upon us, and being slightly in advance of our main line, I suddenly realized that our forces were on the retreat. I was left almost alone, and it seemed to me as though the whole fire of the enemy was directed at me. Realizing at that moment the wisdom of the old adage that “discretion is the better part of valor,” I immediately hunted for cover, which I found in a deserted rifle-pit a short distance to the rear.

Here I found a comparatively safe, but unpleasant shelter, where I was compelled to lie flat until the shadows of night concealed me from the view of the enemy. When peering forth I could see the flickering lights of many lanterns, and I knew that the human vultures were at their unholy work of robbing the dead and wounded. I crept from my place of concealment and began making my way cautiously over the field without knowing which way to go, when suddenly I heard a call from a comrade who had fallen wounded in two places. I stopped and made him as comfortable as possible with the means at hand, cutting cornstalks to make him a bed. Since he was suffering terribly from thirst, I started out in search of a spring that I knew to be somewhere in that vicinity.

Rounding a hill or knoll where I supposed the spring to be I found myself in the midst of quite a force of the rebs and a prisoner of war. Not forgetting my own terrible thirst, I managed to work my way through to the spring and was filling my canteen when I felt a hand upon my back. Turning with the expectation of seeing a rebel guard, I was delighted to find not only a Union soldier, but a member of my own company. Comrade Pardee and I determined to attempt to escape under cover of the darkness. Guessing as nearly as possible the direction necessary to seek for our forces, we worked our way cautiously over the battlefield until we came to the breastworks we had assisted in throwing up that day.

A voice called for assistance. Stopping to investigate, we found it came from Captain Nickels, Company D, who lay wounded, shot through the leg and unable to move. To add to his misery the rebel cavalry had been there and robbed him of hat, coat, watch, money and other valuables, and only desisted from taking his boots because, in trying to remove them from his wounded limb, they caused him such intolerable suffering as to touch the heart of even a rebel cavalryman. As if to add still more to the poor Captain’s suffering, the rain began to pour down in torrents, and not being able to carry him, we made him as comfortable as possible with our rubber blankets to protect him somewhat from the inclemency of the weather.

We started out, hoping to get assistance that we might return and bring the Captain within our lines where he could be cared for. We had proceeded perhaps two miles in the direction he had pointed out to us when we met Adjutant Hincks and another comrade. They had heard Captain Nickels was left on the field and were coming back in search of him. With them we retraced our steps and brought the wounded man to where our ambulance train was stationed. Adjutant Hincks left me to take charge of the captain until we should reach such a place as he could be attended to by the surgeons.

But the end of that night’s hardships was over, for after the ambulance had started, it went over stumps and stones and uneven ground, making such a thumping and jostling, that Captain Nickels was unable to endure the pain it caused. I was compelled to procure a stretcher and, with such help as I could procure from stragglers, I tramped along through that whole night. Sometimes I would be without help and would be compelled to wait. I accosted weary stragglers as they passed, imploring them to give the Captain a little assistance towards safety and the treatment he so much needed.

Fourteen weary miles we tramped carrying the wounded man that night, through woods and swamps and over rocks until, just as day dawned upon us, we reached the hospital tent, more dead than alive, and left the brave man to the tender mercies of the surgeons.

Defeat at Ream’s Station

“I immediately hunted for cover, which I was so fortunate to find in a deserted rifle-pit a short distance to the rear.”  Sgt. Henry Lydall, Company F, Fourteenth Connecticut Vol. Inf., regarding the fight at Ream’s Station, August 25, 1864.

The Weldon Railroad was the only railroad link from Petersburg to the only open Confederate port on the eastern seaboard—Wilmington, NC. In the Battle of Globe Tavern (Aug. 18-21), Lee’s troops, under Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill, tried again and again to drive the Union Fifth Corps, from the railroad near Globe Tavern. Hill’s attacks only forced Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren to draw his lines back a short distance along the railroad, but the Federals never gave up possession of the vital link. In the end, Hill was forced to admit defeat and withdraw north toward Petersburg.

The Union Second Corps, under Maj. Gen. W. S. Hancock had left the north side of the James River August 18th and had marched all the way around the Petersburg siege lines to the western end on the Union entrenchments at Globe Tavern. It was a distance of about thirty-five miles, but the roads were muddy from summer storms. The going was hard and no period for extended rest was given. The men were exhausted when they finally arrived in support of the Fifth Corps.

The Fifth Corps remained at Globe Tavern working to extend the Union trenches to secure the railroad while the Second Corps, now only two divisions strong (about 9,000 men), moved slowly south down the railroad. With Miles Division on the lead they tore up the rails and heated them to glowing red over piles of flaming ties so that the rails were unusable. But the movements of the Second Corps had not gone unnoticed. Understrength and detached from the rest of the army as they were, the two divisions of Hancock’s Corps (1st – Miles and 2nd – Gibbon) made a tempting target.

It was a great risk for Lee send a strong assault force ten miles south from the safety of the Confederate lines. He would have to strip thousands of defenders from his Petersburg defenses, but it was a risk Lee had to take. He assembled a force of eight infantry brigades and two cavalry divisions and sent them south to “punish the enemy.” (Click here for a Civil War Trust map of the Battle of Ream’s Station.)

Despite their weariness the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut spirits were high the evening of the 24th. They had reached a small depot called Ream’s Station and they had helped to destroy the railroad for a distance of about six miles. And, for the first time since their first battle at Antietam almost two years ago, all ten of the company captains were present and fit for duty.

At about 11:30 that night, Gen. Hancock received a message from Gen. Meade’s headquarters informing him that a large force of enemy infantry was marching in his direction. Hancock arranged his defensive position in the shape of a pointed horseshoe, with the open end toward the east. The north and south sides of the horseshoe were only about two hundred yards apart, with Miles’ Division protecting the north and Gibbon’s Division the south. Hancock positioned most of his artillery at the closed western end along the railroad.

The first Confederate assault came shortly after noon on August 25th, from the northeast against the western end of Hancock’s horseshoe. Federal artillery quickly stopped the attack and drove the Rebels back to the cover of the woods. A few hours later the Confederates rushed forward again, this time from the southwest, and again heavy fire from their front and sides forced them to fall back. At about 5:30, a third assault was launched, this time led personally by Gen. Henry Heth. At first, it appeared that it would end as the previous two assaults had, but just as it seemed to Gen. Miles the day would be won, one of his brigades on the northwest portion of the horseshoe panicked and started a stampede for the rear.

The words of Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Co. I, 14th CT) describe the utter confusion that followed: When at last the railroad line gave way, we were called from our line to this side to repel the charge, and facing about we countercharged over the little “V” shaped battle ground to meet the oncoming foe. In the tempest of conflict that followed, organizations almost disappeared. When near night the attempt was made to reform a part of the line and fill up a gap in what had been our original line, General Smyth (the brigade commander) called for the One Hundred and Eighth New York and the colonel responded, “I am here, General, but I have no regiment.” To the call for the Fourteenth Connecticut, perhaps ten of us answered “here.” In obedience to the order, with perhaps a score of others, we dashed into the gap, to be swept as quickly out of it by the enfilading fire which the enemy at that moment poured in from the toe of the horseshoe.

Amid the blinding flashes of a terrible thunderstorm in one of the darkest nights I think I ever saw, both sides retreated and we lost, besides a great number of men, all our artillery but one single gun that a little party, of which I was one, pulled out by hand in that driving storm. These were the first cannon that the Second Corps ever lost and it is said that General Hancock sat at the root of a tree beside the road that night, the picture of distress over the disaster.

(Excerpted from History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry by Charles D. Page.)


Deep Bottom – Take Two

After Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s serious threat to Washington in July, Gen. U. S. Grant dispatched Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan to organize Union forces in northern Virginia and West Virginia into a fighting force that would not only keep Early at bay, but also seize and control the entire Shenandoah Valley.

About August 10th, Gen. Lee allowed word to leak out that he had sent an entire infantry corps northward to reinforce Early. Lee hoped that Grant would send more troops to reinforce Sheridan, thus moving the bulk of the fighting north and lifting the siege of Petersburg. In reality, Lee sent only one division, but Gen. Grant believed the false report, and instead of reacting the way Lee hoped he would, Grant employed the same strategy he had used at the end of July—threaten Richmond directly.

On August 9th, Col. Theodore Ellis reported the strength of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry as 14 officers and 160 enlisted men. A few days later, Ellis was away from the regiment, and his second in command, Lt. Col. Samuel Moore, not only commanded the regiment, but was also in temporary command of the Third Brigade (Smyth), Second Division (Gibbon), of the Second Corps (Hancock). On Saturday, August 13th, under orders directly from Gen. Hancock, Moore marched the brigade to the wharves at City Point where they boarded five steamboats.

That evening the steamers cast off and turned downriver toward Newport News. Speculation was rampant as the men tried to guess where they were headed—Washington, Baltimore, or other points along the east coast were spoken of with wild expectation. But not even Lt. Col. Moore knew their destination. At midnight, Moore took an envelope from his pocket and opened it. It held orders, sealed by Gen. Hancock himself. Moore went immediately to find the captain of the vessel. He told the captain to reverse course and put in at Deep Bottom.

At dawn on Sunday, as they approached the landing at Deep Bottom, the transports came under fire from Confederate artillery nearby, but no harm was done and soon the steamers tied up. The men disembarked and set up a defensive perimeter around the landing. At about 10 a.m. Gen. Hancock arrived with the rest of the Second Corps and Lt. Col. Moore was relieved by Col. Pierce of the 108th New York. (Click here for a map – Second Battle of Deep Bottom.)

The following day the regiment was ordered to relieve a skirmish line of the Third Division. Their route lay over open ground in plain sight of the enemy, and to advance in any type of regular formation would have been suicidal. Moore divided the regiment into small squads of six to eight men each. He then sent one squad at a time running zigzag across the field to the advanced position, which they held for the remainder of the day.

The Fourteenth was also called upon for a special assignment. Federal gunboats, including the USS Agawam, which carried two one-hundred pound Parrot rifled cannon, were shelling the Confederate fortifications along New Market Heights. Confederate guns fired back and at times made it quite uncomfortable for the Union sailors. A detail of the Fourteenth, probably including the men of Company D, who carried the Sharps rifles with the Berdan alterations, was sent forward to maintain fire on one of the Rebel guns. The men did their job so well that the gun did not fire from 9:30 in the morning for the remainder of the day (probably the 16th or 17th). Years after the war a Confederate officer who had been in the fort that day met a member of the Fourteenth Connecticut. The fire of the Fourteenth’s sharpshooters had been so accurate that it prevented all efforts to load and fire the weapon.

Although the Second Battle of Deep Bottom lasted until August 20th, the Fourteenth returned to Petersburg on the 18th. They had lost one man killed, a second mortally wounded, and six others wounded. Although the fighting yielded no victory for Grant, it did force Lee to once again rob the defenses around Petersburg to stop the Union threat to Richmond north of the James, and this reduced the force that Lee was able to muster against Gen. Warren’s Fifth Corps along the Weldon Railroad southwest of Petersburg.

Targedy at City Point

For the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, who continued to man the siege lines south of Petersburg, no particularly arduous duty was required of them during the beginning of August 1864. It seems their only complaint was that the country behind their lines had, in many places, already been stripped of most of its produce and livestock by the cavalry. As for those places that still remained untouched, Asst. Surgeon Levi Jewett wrote, “If any plundering was done it was by stragglers or deserters, but occasionally a wandering pig or an innocent calf or an unsuspecting lamb or a simple-minded goose found its way into the soldiers’ camp kettles.”

The 9th of August was hot with temperatures in the upper nineties, and for military personnel and civilians alike at the massive wharf at City Point, the day would be remembered as the hottest ever. Two Confederate saboteurs, named John Maxwell and R. K. Dillard, slipped past the Union picket line around City Point. Maxwell had invented a time bomb, then called a horological torpedo, and he was eager to test it on Union vessels tied up at the wharf.

The day started like any other. Soldiers and sailors frequented bath houses and barber shops along the waterfront. Sutlers (traveling merchants) plied the warehouses, filling their wagons with goods for resale to the men at the front. Here and there, civilians boarded one or another of the steamers bound downriver. Quartermaster clerks sweated in stuffy offices. Hundreds of black laborers formed a human chain and joyfully tossed artillery shells from boat to railroad car. Another train, filled with passengers and cargo, waited alongside the dock waiting to depart.

At about 10:00 a.m., amid the hustle and bustle of the extremely busy port, no one gave the solitary man carrying a wooden box under his arm a second look. Maxwell paused to set the timer and then approached a fully loaded ammunition barge, the J. E. Kendrick. A guard challenged him. Maxwell said the box belonged to the captain and one of the barge’s crewmen was summoned to carry the box on board.

A huge explosion ripped through the City Point wharf area shortly before noon. The Kendrick was completely destroyed as was a second barge next to it. Fire engulfed a large warehouse nearby. Artillery shells, musket balls, bodies and body parts, and all sorts of debris were blown high and rained down over a wide area. Several officers were injured at Gen. Grant’s headquarters, but he was unhurt.

The official death toll was 43, with 126 injured. But no one knows how many black dockworkers were killed. They carried no identification. They punched no time clock. No register was kept of who was working on that fatal day, and no burials were recorded.

Maxwell and Dillard escaped without difficulty. After the war Maxwell applied for a patent for his timed exploding device that had been proven quite effective and deadly.

Political Correctness Civil War Style

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s plan for what would become known as the Battle of the Crater was fairly simple. At a point about a half mile southeast of Petersburg, where the Confederate works were only about 125 yards away from those of the Federals, a mine would be dug underneath the works of the enemy, The mine would be filled with black powder and exploded. Before the debris had even settled, a well-trained assault force would rush toward the breach and establish a foothold within the enemy lines that would then be exploited by tens of thousands of additional troops held at the ready.

Pennsylvania miners employed their brawn and skills in digging a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath the Rebel works. At the end of the tunnel chambers were dug to the right and left, large enough to accommodate six tons of black power. The assault force was drilled over and over. They would rush forward in three columns, passing to around the edge of the crater, rather than running down into it. Once inside the Confederate works, they would split into three sections. The first would engage the enemy to the left while the second did the same on the right right. The third column would drive straight ahead toward the Jerusalem Plank Road. In the words of their commanding officer, the men “practiced these movements till they could have been executed as perfectly in the dark as in the light.” The men were also trained in the use of the weapon of choice for this assault—the bayonet.

Late in July 1864 the tunnel was completed. The mine was scheduled to explode at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 30th. The black powder arrived and was carried keg by keg down the long tunnel and stacked in the two chambers. But there was only four tons rather than six, and the fuse, which should have been a single continuous strand from powder chamber to tunnel mouth, was supplied in short sections. Many splices were required to achieve the required distance.

Alfred Waud's sketch of fighting near the explosion of July 30 (Library of Congress Digital Collection)

Alfred Waud’s sketch of fighting near the explosion of July 30 (Library of Congress Digital Collection)

two days before the scheduled explosion, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, made a decision that doomed the entire operation to failure. The troops chosen to lead the assault were the 43rd U. S. Colored Troops, and Meade thought it “impolitic” to trust these men with so important a job. They were a new division, untried in battle, but the real reason behind Meade’s decision to shelve the 43rd USCT was because casualties would likely be high in the lead units, and he feared the political and racial criticisms he would be subject to because of the loss of more black soldiers than whites in the assault.

The lead division was then chosen by lot, not by ability. The lot fell to Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s Division. The explosion was delayed over an hour by the faulty fuses. And when it finally did explode, Ledlie’s untrained men, led by a man whom Gen. Grant considered the worst commander in the Ninth Corps, surged forward into the pit created by the explosion. Unable to climb out, they were trapped there, and what the Confederates called a “turkey shoot” was on.

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with the rest of Second Corps, stood ready to go forward should any success be achieved by Burnside’s Ninth Corps. But there was only abject failure and the Second Corps took no part in this disaster. Total Ninth Corps casualties were 3,800, with over 500 men killed, many of whom were black soldiers from the 30th USCT. Gen. Grant said it best—”the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war.”