“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!”