Category Archives: Battles of the 14th

Last Fight, Last Blood

On April 7th, 1865, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry fought their last battle. Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Company I) described it this way in the regimental history written by Charles Page:

Our last engagement with the enemy was at the crossing of the Appomattox River at High Bridge. We came upon them at daylight, setting fire to the bridge; men forgot all rules and discipline in the enthusiasm of the moment. General Barlow, who commanded our division, rode at the head of the column with his staff over the bridge into the ranks of the enemy, firing his pistol at them as they were trying to apply a match to the tar on the bridge. After him went the 108th New York and then the Fourteenth Connecticut. This was the only time I saw this movement executed (rushing pell-mell across to engage the enemy). As you can see in this photo taken just after the war, High Bridge was well-named.

High_Bridge_Farmville_Virginia

Across the bridge we formed quickly in the meadow and on we went for miles over the hills, through the town of Farmville, where we chased the retreating foe and charged on the hen-coops of the village at the same time. We did not lose a single man in this charge, so far as I know, though we had some very narrow escapes. As we came on to the top of one of the hills, a shell buried itself in the ground at my feet and exploded, literally covering me and the men next to me with gravel stones, but without hurting any of us.

Just at nightfall of that day the last man in our brigade to give his life for his country was killed, that was our commanding General (Thomas) Smyth, as noble a fellow as ever held a sword. Our congratulations over that day’s work were changed suddenly to gloom and many a soldier cried that night at the loss of a man who had shared our perils and hardships so constantly and so bravely.

 

The Chase Begins

The night of April 2-3, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, march about forty miles west along different routes, and reassemble at Amelia Courthouse. The ultimate goal was to escape to Danville or Lynchburg, unite with Gen. Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina, and deal the Union army a stunning defeat. But the most pressing issue for Lee was the need for food, so Lee ordered supply trains to head for Amelia Courthouse as well.

Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant knew that direct assaults upon Lee’s entrenchment at Petersburg would cost many thousands of casualties. Instead, Grant’s strategy was to force Lee’s army out from its cover into the open where they could be be pursued and, hopefully forced to surrender. It was Maj. Gen Phil Sheridan’s job to ride west along a route parallel to, but south of Lee’s, and prevent Lee from turning south toward Danville or Lynchburg. Union infantry, including the Seconds Corps, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteers would chase Lee’s army from behind. (Click for Wikipedia map.)

The Confederates marched into Amelia Courthouse on April 4, but no wagon trains loaded with rations had arrived. The following day, on empty bellies, Lee’s men marched south, but soon came upon Sheridan’s troopers. Lee ordered his weary troops to march another twenty miles to Farmville on the South Side Railroad where surely, there would be rations for the men, and feed for the animals.

Once again, Sheridan spoiled Lee’s plans. Most of Lee’s army crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, but Sheridan trapped about 18,000 Confederates (about one fourth of Lee’s total strength) south of the river. In the Battle of Sailor’s (Sayler’s Creek), Sheridan lost about a thousand men, but Lee lost four generals captured, including Richard Ewell, almost 8,000 men taken prisoner, and unknown numbers killed or wounded.

Despite the high drama that was being played out a few miles west of them, this cryptic chronicle of those few days appears in the regimental history: “At two o’clock (a.m.) April 4th, the march was resumed and rations were served until the regiment marched forward. It rained some during the day and a train of wagons and some prisoners were captured.” (Could the 14th Connecticut captured one of the wagon trains Lee was waiting for?) “April 5th the regiment started early and marched all day, being out as skirmishers, driving the Rebels continuously and taking some prisoners. At night the regiment went out on picket.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Fourteenth Connecticut’s final battle of the war.

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!”

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.

Hatcher’s Run

As January 1865 drew to a close, rumors of possible peace flew up and down the lines of both armies outside of Petersburg. On the 29th, a three-man delegation from Richmond, led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, passed through the lines under a flag of truce. It was their hope to travel to Washington to open serious discussions on how the war might be ended and peace restored between “our two countries.”

President Lincoln had the Confederate delegation delayed at City Point and wired Gen. Grant that he was not to alter any plans he had for prosecuting the war, no matter what he heard about peace talks. President Lincoln then ordered the delegation sent to Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads, where on February 3rd, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward met with the Confederate delegates on board the steamer River Queen. When asked if there was any way to put an end to the war, Lincoln’s reply was short and crystal clear. “There is but one way. Those who are resisting the laws of the Union must cease their resistance.” This was simply a reworded repetition of what Lincoln had already communicated to Jefferson Davis directly, that the war would end only when the South ceased hostilities and submitted to the laws of “our one common country.” The peace conference ended with both sides as far apart as ever.

Meanwhile, Grant had heeded President Lincoln’s advice. Early on Sunday morning, February 5th, a force of about 35,000 men, consisting of Gen. Warren’s Fifth Corps, the second and third divisions of Gen. Humphreys’ Second Corps, Gen. Gregg’s cavalry division, and artillery, left their camps in another attempt to disrupt the western supply route. The men of the Second Corps slogged westward along the north side of Hatcher’s Run and established a defensive line just east of Burgess Mill where they had fought in October. (See posts of 10/24/2014 and 10/31/2014.) At the same time the Fifth Corps advanced westward south of Hatcher’s Run.

Late in the afternoon the Confederates attacked the newly entrenched men of the Second Corps. (Click to view a Civil War Trust map.) The two divisions fought off several determined assaults and held their position. The 14th CT was in Pierce’s Brigade and was held in reserve to be used as needed to protect the left flank. Sgt. Charles Blatchley (14th CT, Co. I) told of this battle in Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry:

Our line had been formed and rifle pits (breastworks) thrown up and the picks and shovels carried away by the Pioneer Corps when it was discovered by the fire of the advancing enemy that a mistake had been made and the line was at exactly right angles to the proper direction. The change in the line was quickly made and a new line of works erected under fire by the men without tools and the celerity with which this was accomplished showed what could be done under a certain amount and kind of pressure. We occupied this line for several days and one night here I had the experience of being frozen in bed. It rained and freezing as it fell, our blankets were firmly frozen to the earth and we under them in the morning.

During the change of position described above, one man was killed, Lt. Franklin Bartlett (Co. F), the youngest officer in the regiment. Several others were wounded. South of Hatcher’s Run, parts of the Fifth Corps fought a back and forth battle around Dabney’s Mill on February 6th, during which Confederate Brig. Gen. John Pegram was killed.

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run was considered a Union victory. True, a smaller Confederate force had once again stopped the advance of a Federal force twice their size and the vital western supply route remained unmolested. But the ground taken and held by the Second Corps allowed the Federal line of entrenchments to stretch to Armstrong’s Mill, three miles closer to the South Side Railroad that continued to shuttle Confederate supplies and men into Petersburg.

Boydton Plank Road – Part 2

In this enterprise the now depleted ranks of the Fourteenth Regiment were called upon to take a prominent part. (Charles D. Page, History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Infantry.)

Last week we left our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut after they, with lots of help from Federal artillery and other portions of Hancock’s Second Corps, had seized control of the vital Confederate supply route southwest of Petersburg, the Boydton Plank Road. In the vicinity of Burgess Mill on Hatcher’s Run, Confederate Gen. Henry Heth organized a strong counterattack of infantry and cavalry and sent them forward to attack the Second Corps from three sides simultaneously. The Wikipedia map below shows the scope of the battle during the afternoon of October 27th. The Fourteenth Connecticut was part of the Second Division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Egan, because Maj. Gen. John Gibbon had been given a corps command.

Petersburg_Oct27Wikipedia

The Second and Third Divisions of the Second Corps were almost cutoff from the rest of the army, but they didn’t panic as they had at Ream’s Station. They fought hard and held their positions along the road until nightfall, when Gen. Hancock ordered the corps to withdraw. Sgt. and Color-bearer John Hirst of Company D provides interesting details about the regiments role in the battle:

Just then (about 1:00 p.m.) a heavy rain storm came up and drenched us to the skin, compelling us to lay still until it was over. After the storm was over the artillery upon both sides opened fire and the battle commenced again. The rebels were not idle. but hard at work upon our right flank where they drove in our cavalry and were making for our battery, which their guns were trying to silence. We were moved at double-quick for a little way when we saw the Johnnies forming behind a house and barn pretty close to our battery. We charged them and drove them down the road to a mill near a bridge where we captured a few of them, the remainder of them crossing the bridge and going up a hill into some woods.

They came near fetching me upon their last charge, a rifle ball cut the strap of my knapsack clean off my shoulder and went through my rubber blanket. The knapsack, lurching over to one side. nearly threw me down. Some of the boys reached for me and the colors, but I was all right, and if they don’t get nearer than that I shall remain so.

We next took possession of one of their rifle-pits on the brow of a hill opposite to the Rebels, but with the creek (Hatcher’s Run) between us. If we could have brought a few more men into action when we first came up, we might have captured that rebel battery, but we had to stop before reaching it as we were exposed to a flank attack and we had to fight upon both flanks as well as at the front while the rest of the corps was coming up. The rebels wanted the plank road real bad and during the day charged it three times, but were each time repulsed by portions of our Second and Third Divisions. If the Johnnies could have got the road our whole brigade would have been captured, for there was no getting out with the enemy fighting us on every side.

After dark we began to get out, a few men at a time, silently falling back over the hill, where we were reformed preparatory to moving back to camp. We left behind us one man from each company on picket and also Dr. Dudley with our killed and wounded who were unable to walk. I think the rebels had us in a pretty tight place and a part of the Fifth and Ninth Corps had to come out and open a road in our rear. The roads were ankle deep in mud. but we kept up our return march until two o’clock in the morning when we rested until daylight, when the Fifth Corps left us and our brigade was put on duty as rear guard. We finally got back into our lines all right and last night we got into our old camp, where I am now writing.

Casualties to the regiment during this battle were: 1 officer and 3 enlisted men killed, 1 officer and 11 enlisted men wounded, and 14 enlisted men captured by the enemy.

 

 

 

 

Boydton Plank Road – Part 1

The idea for Federal forces to go on the offensive one more time before winter descended upon the siege lines around Petersburg originated with Maj. Gen, George Meade. On the evening of October 23, 1864, he discussed his plan with Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant. It was similar in design to the strategy of attacking both flanks simultaneously that had been used with mixed results throughout the summer and early fall, but the force employed would be larger, and the attack on the western front would cover a wider section of the Confederate line. Intelligence Meade had gathered from Confederate prisoners indicated that the entrenchments west of the Union line at Fort Cummings were poorly constructed and there were but few defenders.

BoydtonPR-1c

The map above was drawn in 1865. Fort Cummings is marked in bright red and in October 1864, no Federal fortifications had been built to the south and west. Fort Cummings was the end of the line. Meade’s strategy was simple. While Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler demonstrated against the Confederate lines east of Richmond with the Army of the James, the Army of the Potomac would assault the weak Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg with three corps of infantry—about 35,000 men. The three corps were the Second under Maj. Gen Winfield S. Hancock, the Fifth under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, and the Ninth under Maj. Gen. John Parke. The Fifth and Ninth were to drive hard against the Rebel works and be ready to instantly exploit the breakthrough that was sure to come. It was the Second Corps’ job to march hard for the Boydton Plank Road and, once it was securely in Federal hands, strike northward toward the South Side Railroad. To the left (south) of the Second Corps, Gen. Gregg’s division of cavalry guarded the flank.

At about 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 27, the three columns of infantry moved out. Things went poorly from the start. Parke’s Corps moved slowly westward. Light rain and mist made the way slippery with mud. Officers didn’t know the roads and sporadic Confederate sharpshooting hindered their progress. When they finally did come upon the main Confederate line, it proved to be much stouter and more heavily manned than they had been told. No further progress was made and with the day but half spent, Parke’s men dug in.

Warren’s Corps fared little better. They lost their bearings in the dark and when they finally did get headed in the right direction, they ran into Confederate resistance north of Armstrong’s Mill. Pushing on a little farther, Warren’s men also discovered that Federal intelligence was wrong. A strongly enemy line of entrenchments lay across their line of advance. Warren, who was an engineer before the war, stopped and analyzed the situation.

Hancock’s Second Corps had marched farther than either of the other two corps to take part in this assault on the Boydton Plank Road, and again on this day they would be required to march the farthest. I drew the route of the Second Corps, which included the two hundred or so members of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, on the map above. After marching south on Halifax Road, they turned west toward Hatcher’s Run where they came upon resistance. Sgt. John Hirst (Co. D) wrote, “There was one regiment from Georgia that tried to hold the works, but it was broken and scattered through the woods.”

Once across Hatcher’s Run, the corps turned northwest an marched along a very narrow road past Dabney’s Mill. As the column approached the Boydton Plank Road, Confederate artillery opened up on them. Sgt. Hirst again describes the action, “Our skirmishers on one side and our cavalry on the other soon outflanked them and they had to fall back. In the meantime our artillery came up and opened fire, under cover of which we got possession of the road.”

Another of Gen. Lee’s vital supply routes was now in Federal hands, but Confederate forces were rushing to face this new threat. The Second Corps was once again dangling unsupported at the end of the line, just as it had when the Confederates had almost destroyed the corps at Ream’s Station. Hancock had been personally humiliated then and his confidence in his men was shaken. Next week, we’ll see if the once superb Hancock had one more great fight left in him.