Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Rebellion Has Gone Up

“April 2nd the regiment moved still farther to the left to the Boydton Plank Road and then advanced in line of battle through the rebel works, the enemy falling back as they approached.” (Charles D. Page, History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry.) I wish there was a glorious tale to tell of the exploits of the Fourteenth Connecticut, but in fact all of the fighting done on this momentous day was done by other units, and only one of the Second Corps three divisions saw any fighting.

The general assault ordered by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began at about 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 2nd. Almost simultaneously, in the first gray light of dawn, the Union Ninth and Sixth Corps surged forward from their entrenchments and crossed the no man’s land between the lines.

The Ninth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Parke, assaulted the Confederate works around Fort Mahone on the east side of Petersburg. The Confederates were led by Maj. Gen. John Gordon. Surging Federals swept up and over Fort Mahone and three other strongholds, but Gordon organized determined counterattacks and a desperate struggle began to retake the forts. This fight continued for the remainder of the day, until defeats elsewhere caused Gen. Lee to order Gordon to withdraw all of his troops to Petersburg’s inner defensive perimeter.

In the predawn hours of that Sunday morning, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright deployed his troops in a wedge formation in front of their entrenchments. They too went forward at first light, led by Brig. Gen. George Getty’s Division. Within half an hour they had broken through the lightly held Confederate lines. The defenders were put to flight and the bulk of the Sixth Corps turned left, away from Petersburg, to exploit their gains. A few units didn’t get the message about the left turn and continued straight across the Boydton Plank Road. Two enlisted men from the 138th PA became separated and were approached by two Confederate officers on horseback, who demanded that they surrender. Instead the two Union boys hid behind a tree, took careful aim and fired. One of the officers was unhurt, but the other was killed instantly—Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill. Civil War Preservation Trust Map of the Sixth Corps breakthrough.

It is conceivable that had the Sixth Corps turned right instead of left, they could have marched right into Petersburg, because the western portion of the inner defenses was not yet manned as it would be later in the day. As it was, the Twenty-fourth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, followed the Sixth Corps through the shattered Confederate line and did turn toward Petersburg. During the afternoon they were engaged in heavy fighting at Forts Gregg and Whitworth. The forts were finally taken, but the Confederate defenders had bought enough time for troops from Longstreet’s Corps to man the western portion of Petersburg’s inner defensive line.

And what of the Second Corps? The First Division, under Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles and attached to Sheridan’s western command, was sent to deal with a body of troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth that was retreating northward after the Sixth Corps breakthrough. Heth entrenched his command along the South Side Railroad near Sutherland Station. Miles’ Federals charged once and were repulsed. A second charge was defeated as well. Miles’ sent a desperate message to Maj. Gen. Humphreys, the commander of the Second Corps, pleading for help. In the meantime, Mile’s had the Confederate position scouted and a new plan of attack was devised. The third Federal assault broke the enemy lines and Heth’s command was driven northward toward the Appomattox River.

The boys in the Fourteenth Connecticut never fired a shot that day. After they advanced into the abandoned works mentioned at the start of this post, Maj. Gen. George Meade ordered Humphreys to march the rest of his corps east toward Petersburg. When Miles’ plea for help arrived, they turned around and marched west toward Sutherland. Then word came that the First Division had been victorious, so the two divisions about-faced again and struck off once more for Petersburg.

Grant’s general assault had been successful beyond his wildest imagining all along the front. That night. Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, aide to Gen. Meade, scribbled a short note to his wife: “My Dear Mimi : The Rebellion has gone up!”

Five Forks

In last week’s post, we left Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry corps on the evening of March 31, 1865, having just suffered defeat at the hands of Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett. The Federal troopers were arrayed in a defensive perimeter a short distance north and west of Dinwiddie Courthouse, Virginia. Pickett withdrew several miles northward to a key crossroads known as Five Forks. His men dug in with orders from Gen. Lee himself to “hold Five Forks at all hazard.” But Lee could not send any reinforcements to Pickett because the rest of the Union army, including the Men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, were in close contact with the entrenched Confederates, and would know immediately if Lee weakened any part of his line.

Grant had also placed Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren’s Fifth Corps, who were astride White Oak Road about six miles east of Five Forks, under Sheridan’s command. On April 1, Sheridan ordered Warren to advance his infantry westward along White Oak Road, while Sheridan’s cavalry advanced on Pickett’s position from the south. Heavy rains that had swept the Petersburg area the last few days of March ended, but the roads were still muddy. Movement was so slow that Warren’s men weren’t ready to attack until about 4 p.m.

This great map from the Civil War Trust shows the results of the battle, a major defeat for Pickett’s force of infantry and cavalry. While Sheridan pressed nearly the entire length of the Confederate line with his cavalry, Warren drove hard against the eastern flank. The battle was over quickly, and Pickett, who was a couple of miles north enjoying a fine fish dinner beside Hatcher’s Run, lost nearly a third of his command, most of them prisoners.

Lee’s western force was shattered. The way lay open for Sheridan to march up Ford’s Road and cut the South Side Railroad. Gen. Lee wired President Davis that Richmond and Petersburg must be abandoned immediately.

Despite the great victory, Sheridan relieved Warren and placed Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin in command of the Fifth Corps. About nine o’clock that evening, Gen. Grant issued an order that sounded the final death knell for the Confederacy: “I have ordered a general assault along the lines.”


The Beginning of the End

“Monday and Tuesday, March 27th and 28th, 1865, the Fourteenth rested in its comfortable camp for the last time as on the morning of the 29th they marched out through the picket line and moved up Hatcher’s Run, drove in the rebel picket and threw up two lines of breastworks.” (Sgt. Charles Blatchley, Company I, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry)

And thus the final campaign of the Civil war began for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Not very exciting stuff, but what they were doing was an important piece of the puzzle that was Gen. Grant’s grand plan for ending the war quickly and victoriously.

A war strategy conference had taken place aboard the steamboat River Queen at City Point on March 27th. Present were President Lincoln, Generals Grant and Sherman, and Admiral Porter. Sometime during the day Gen. Phil Sheridan also put in an appearance. He had just arrived with his cavalry corps after marching all the way from Winchester, VA. Grant gave Sheridan orders to march his command all the way to the southwest end of the Federal siege works around Petersburg. Sheridan’s cavalry and the Fifth Corps of infantry under Gen. G. K. Warren were to force the enemy to come out from behind their entrenchments and fight in the open. They were also to destroy the South Side Railroad, the only railroad link between Gen. Lee’s army and that of Gen. Joe Johnston in North Carolina. (Click to view a Wikipedia map of this part of the campaign.)

The role of Gen. Humphrey’s Second Corps was to move to the left (west) and keep pressure on the Confederates to their front, so that these troops couldn’t be sent to confront Sheridan and Warren. To the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, this duty wasn’t special in any way, thus the brevity of the description at the start of this post.

Heavy rains plagued the area until March 31st, but the strategic plan was implemented in spite of it. On March 29th, Gen. Warren’s troops fought and won a back-and-forth battle at Lewis’s Farm. On March 31st, several miles to the south, Gen. Sheridan wasn’t so fortunate when he tried to advance toward an important crossroads called Five Forks. A joint force of Confederate infantry and cavalry under Gen. George Pickett of Gettysburg fame, slowly drove Sheridan’s troopers east and south toward the Boydton Plank Road. Sheridan called up Gen. Custer’s Division and the Federal cavalry line held off assaults late in the day near Dinwiddie Courthouse. That night, Pickett withdrew his cavalry and infantry northwest to Five Forks.

The action around Dinwiddie Courthouse is considered a Confederate victory, even though they suffered over twice as many casualties, 760 to 350 for the Federals. It was also the final time Lee’s forces would fight offensively.

A WORD ABOUT COMMAND: If you’re interested in the command structure of the Union Army during the Appomattox Campaign, click here. It can be confusing, especially when we consider the Fourteenth Connecticut (Second (II) Corps, Second Division, Third Brigade). In February, Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth was in command of the division. Early in March, Brig. Gen. William Hays, who was captured at Chancellorsville, returned from serving provost duty and was assigned command of the division. Smyth returned to command of the Third Brigade. On April 6th, Hays was found sleeping on duty and dismissed. Smyth once again assumed temporary command of the Second Division, but his divisional command lasted less than one day, because Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow was assigned permanent command. On April 7th Smyth was once again in command of the Third Brigade when he was mortally wounded at Farmville. Smyth died on April 9th, the day on which Lee surrendered. Smyth was the last Union general officer and the last man of the Third Brigade to die during the war.

A Fort Too Far

As winter came to a close along the front at Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s main concern was how to save his dwindling, starving army from annihilation, but he was unsure of what course of action he should follow. Lee asked the opinion of Maj. Gen. John Gordon, a young but veteran commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps. Gordon’s reply was simple: 1) ask Grant for peace terms, or 2) abandon Petersburg and Richmond and march south toward Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina, or 3) fight soon.

On March 6th, Lee told Gordon to plan an attack. “To stand still was death,” Lee said. “It could only be death if we fought and failed.” Gordon devised a desperate but well-conceived plan—a surprise attack under the cover of darkness, first with small squads of troops with special assignments, with thousands more standing ready to exploit any breakthrough in the enemy’s lines. The goal was to fight their way all the way to City Point, disrupt the Union supply lines, and force Grant to reduce the length of his siege lines. Nearly half of Lee’s army was ordered to assemble behind the Colquitt’s Salient, a portion of the Confederate line that was quite close to the opposing Federal line at Fort Stedman.

Well before dawn on March 25th, small groups of engineers and riflemen stole across the no man’s land between the lines. They quietly captured Federal pickets and removed abatis and other obstructions. More troops moved stealthily up to the Federal entrenchments. In a sudden rush, they were inside. Fort Stedman was quickly taken, along with three artillery batteries and hundreds of yards of entrenchments north and south of the fort. Thousands of Confederate troops advanced into the breech, along with gun crews who turned captured artillery pieces around and fired on fleeing Federals. Gen. Gordon himself went forward to Fort Stedman to direct the next phase of the assault. (Click to view a map of the first phase.)

But then the plan started to unravel. Units that were supposed to conduct special operations got lost. Cavalry and thousands more troops that were to support the breakthrough failed to arrive when and where they were supposed too. Many of the starving troops in the initial assault wave stopped to feast on the bountiful rations they found in the Union camps. Early morning darkness gave way to daylight, allowing Federal troops to distinguish friend from foe. And the cool, decisive actions of a determined, little-known division commander of the Union Ninth Corps saved the day.

Brig. Gen. John Hartranft was in charge of the Ninth Corps reserve, while Maj. Gen. Orlando Willcox commanded the front line. After the breakthrough, Willcox believed the day lost, and was preparing to withdraw, when Hartranft asked for and was granted command of the field. Hartranft immediately ordered his two brigades of widely dispersed Pennsylvania regiments to encircle the attacking Rebel force. (Click for a map of the second phase.) Containment was quickly achieved, the tide was reversed, and by eight o’clock, the battle ended in complete defeat for Gordon’s Confederates. Union losses were about 1,000: 72 killed, 450 wounded, about 500 missing. Estimated Confederate losses were four times greater—about 600 killed, 2,400 wounded, more than 1,000 taken prisoner (some estimates as high as 2,000)—all of them men who Lee could never replace.

The Battle of Fort Stedman was, in the opinion of many historians the final chapter of the siege of Petersburg. It was entirely a Ninth Corps affair, so our boys in the Fourteenth Connecticut were not involved. However, they were not idle. With many of the enemy troops to their front sent east to Coquitt’s Salient, the men of the Second and Sixth Corps pushed forward. They captured and occupied long sections of the Confederates entrenched picket lines, extending the Federal siege lines farther to the west and closer to the enemy. This action was actually the opening scene of the final act of the long and bloody Civil War—the Appomattox Campaign.