Category Archives: Battles of the 14th

Counting the Cost

In the aftermath of the defeat at Reams Station of the Second Corps, which was widely regarded as the Union Army of the Potomac’s finest corps, Gen. Winfield S. Hancock was humiliated. “Hancock the Superb,” so dubbed by Gen. George B. McClellan, was proved mortal after all. Gen. John Gibbon, commander of the Second Division of the Second Corps, to which the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was attached, was so upset with Hancock for not sending for reinforcements sooner, that he almost resigned his commission.

The Confederate infantry and cavalry units that had gone into battle that 25th of August returned to the Petersburg defenses elated. They had tasted sweet victory once again. They believed even more fervently in the rightness of his cause and in final victory, and they were confident that they could assault and take any position from the Yankees, fortified or not.

Within the ranks of the Fourteenth Connecticut, fewer men answered the call of the roll. The death of Captain William Hawley (Company K) grieved every member of the once again small regiment. Since the previous October, when there had been about 660 men present for duty, their numbers had been reduced through combat and disease, so that there were but 167 men in the fight at Reams Station. Fifty-one of these men were lost as casualties (killed-5, wounded-18, missing-28). This loss was comparable to Gettysburg the year before. The Fourteenth went into that battle with about 160 men, 66 of whom were listed as casualties (killed-10, wounded-52, missing-4).

Curiously, the men were not despondent. In fact, there was a growing understanding within the ranks that they were now engaged in the final stages of the war, the beginning of the end, we might say. The Union perimeter around Petersburg had been extended westward and encompassed the Weldon Railroad. Confederate supply trains could come only as far north as Stony Creek. Wagon trains had to carry the supplies the remainder of the way to Petersburg, a distance of thirty miles, much of it along the Boydton Plank Road.

A few days later the men would learn that Atlanta had fallen to Union forces. The same slow, encircling, strangling strategy Sherman had used was being employed at Petersburg. Over the coming weeks Federal fortifications would be extended even farther to the west and the Boydton Plank Road would become the next target for the Army of the Potomac, and for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut.

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.

Deep Bottom – Take One

“July 21st (1864) we drew potatoes, beets, turnips, onions, and pickles from the Sanitary Commission. They had previously issued good provisions to us and at this time we were living as good as anyone could ask.” – Sgt. Edward Wade (Co. F, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry)

Today, some of us might turn up our noses at this fare, but for Union foot soldiers, the vitamins and nutrients provided were essential for maintaining their health. At this time in the siege, they were receiving regular rations of fresh bread baked in huge ovens at City Point. Herds of beef cattle were slaughtered and the men were regularly blessed with rations of fresh meat. Now imagine the enticing aroma of beef stew simmering in a smoke-blackened pot over your campfire.

The year before at Vicksburg, after the first few days of trying to take the city by force, Gen. Grant was content to besiege the city and wait for hunger and deprivation to bring the siege to its inevitable conclusion. Confederate forces under Gen. Pemberton sheltered in their earthworks and hoped for deliverance from the outside, namely a second army under Gen. Joseph Johnston that was rumored to be lurking in Grant’s rear ready to strike. We might view the siege of Vicksburg as a slow and steady strangulation.

The siege of Petersburg was different. Strategies were employed on both sides in attempts to gain a decisive victory. Grant scheduled the explosion of the mine under the Confederate breastworks for Saturday, July 30th. On the 26th he ordered the Second Corps along with most of Sheridan’s cavalry to move north across the Appomattox River. After a march of about twenty miles, the Union force marched over a pontoon bridge that had been laid across the James River at a place known as Deep Bottom.

Gen. Lee reacted to this threat to his eastern flank by sending two divisions from the Petersburg entrenchments. This was exactly what Grant had hoped for. On July 27th, Hancock assaulted the Confederate breastworks along Bailey’s Creek with his First Division. According to Sgt. Wade, this initial assault met with some success, but eventually the division was repulsed. (Click here to view a Civil War Trust battle map in a new window.) The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were not involved in this fight. After the crossing of the James, they filed into a line of breastworks near the river and watched a large gunboat and a turreted monitor lob shells over their heads toward the enemy.

On the 28th, Sheridan’s cavalry tried to storm the works as well, but Confederate infantry under Gen. Richard Anderson counterattacked and drove the Union cavalry backward to the Darby farm. Sheridan’s men rallied. They stood firm and used their repeating rifles with deadly effect. The Confederate infantry assault was stopped and hurled back, and the Union horse soldiers took over 200 prisoners.

The Battle of First Deep Bottom was not a big fight with just over 1,000 total casualties for both sides. Initially, Grant’s plan worked well. Lee weakened his defenses around what would become known as “The Crater.” On July 29th, both Hancock’s and Sheridan’s troops recrossed the James and were marching hard back toward the Petersburg lines. And so, by evening of that day, an overwhelming force of Union infantry had been assembled opposite the thinly held works of the enemy, waiting for a match to be struck to the fuse and ready to go forward at a moments notice.

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.

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.”