Category Archives: Siege of Petersburg

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.

A Sergeant’s Take on the Siege

Sergeant Charles G. Blatchley of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry (Co. I) was one of the principal commentators on the final months of the war in Charles D. Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry. Blatchley gives the following matter-of-fact description of the siege at Petersburg. I’ve underlined a couple of phrases that are explained below.

The record of these nine months before Petersburg would make a very monotonous story. There are in them intensely stirring incidents: night attacks on both sides: the thrilling experience of creeping noiselessly up with bated breath toward their lines one moment, and the next enveloped in the blinding flash of suffocating smoke of battle. I only had this once, once was enough. Or lying behind our own works with the ready rifles loaded and capped as they were, even when we slept on them: peering through the darkness into the black space in front of us, to find it suddenly swarming full of the gray and the butternut in the mad attempt to break our lines. Or perhaps back in the bomb-proofs, which we had learned to build, after from eighteen to twenty-four hours duty in the front line, just lying down for a little rest, before our eyes were fairly closed to be called out by the quick sharp rattle of musketry or the heavy detonations of the mortars or the shrieking yell of the rifle cannon shots as they came tearing through the trees. One minute in those days was ample time to transform a sleeping soldier on the reserve into a soldier alert, armed and accoutered, all ready for business. We always slept with our clothes on and unless on the rear reserve with our accoutrements on and the right hand on the barrel of the rifle.

“…even when we slept on them.” It was a common thing for Civil War soldiers to “sleep on their arms” when faced with imminent threat, so they could be ready in an instant for combat.

“…shrieking yell of the rifle cannon shots…” The Confederate artillery had several Whitworth rifled cannons in their arsenal. These British imports had a range of over a mile and were very accurate. They fired a hexagonal shell which made a distinctive howling sound as it parted the air, and might be what Blatchley was referring to.

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.

Trench Life

Life in the trenches around Petersburg during the winter months was no picnic, but the ever-present sardonic humor of the regular foot soldier shines through in this account of living conditions at Fort Morton by Sgt. Stannard (14th CT, Co. G) in History of the Fourteenth Regt., Connecticut Vol. Infantry by Charles D. Page:

Fort Morton was on the line of works not far from the Appomattox River. Sharpshooters used an old chimney back about two miles from the line. Saps and mines (trenches and tunnels dug toward the enemy) and any other old thing was a go in those days, every man had to look out for himself when a sharpshooter got after him. If a man got a hole through his body it was just a ‘ventilator.’

At this place we were obliged to live under ground, like a gopher. The shells from the rebels came into our camp too thick to make it healthy to live on top of the ground. The line of works was at the crest of the hill so that the ground descended in the front and at the rear. To build our ‘bomb proof’ we dug a trench about six feet running directly to the rear and about five feet deep. This carried the water off and left the ground dry. To make them bomb proof we dug a trench about three feet wide starting from the main trench and dug it about five feet long, then we dug out a square hole in the ground at the end of this trench, this was dug to a level with the first trench and made the floor to our house. (The photo below is of bombproofs a short distance to the north at Fort Stedman. Notice the barrels topping the chimneys.)

bomb_proofsWe then took timbers, logs or anything we could find long enough to reach across the hole and covered the hole over, excepting a small opening over which we placed a pork barrel with both ends out. This was to be the chimney for we dug out a fireplace near one corner and then covered the top over with the dirt taken out of the hole, this was piled up as high as we could get dirt to pile up. The entrance was through the trench, for a door we hung up a piece of bagging. The fireplace was a hole cut into the side of the opening and had a flue cut up to the pork barrel through which the smoke escaped.

For bunks the lower one was on the ground, the upper one was placed directly over the lower and was made with pine poles held up by crotches set into the ground at each end. In this hole four men could keep house and feel that they were safe while inside as no shell could reach them. (Four men and only two bunks meant they slept in shifts.) With a couple of hardtack boxes for cupboards and the army blankets men could make themselves comfortable, and feel that it was a luxury compared with some of the accommodations furnished by Uncle Sam. This was the usual way of building quarters when the lay of the land would permit it. In such a place four of us of the Fourteenth Connecticut Regiment kept house for several months and were comfortable as comfort goes in the army.

At four o’clock every morning we were called out to stand in the breastworks until after daylight. This was to prevent a surprise, for it would be at this time that the enemy would be most likely to
try to be familiar. But he never found us napping. Did you ever see a new recruit when he was first under fire? Well, the fool would run the risk of having his blockhead blown off if any one
should tell him to keep down out of sight of the enemy, they wanted to show what brave idiots they were. I saw one leap up on the breastworks one morning. Well, he came down again, but he had the compliments of a sharpshooter with him in the shape of a piece of lead in his hip.

Trial By Wood

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the Christmas and New Year holidays, my next post is scheduled for Friday, January 9, 2015. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year.

As you warm yourself at your fireside during this yuletide season, consider the following quest for firewood as related by Sgt. B. E. Stannard (14th CT, Co. G) in History of the Fourteenth Regt., Connecticut Vol. Infantry by Charles D. Page:

At Fort Morton, on the line before Petersburg, in the winter of 1864-5, wood became a scarce article, and it was no small part of our work to find a supply and get it into the camp. Every tree for miles around had been cut, even to the roots. There was also a class of men who were very shy about exerting themselves to do such work as required them to cut and carry wood into camp and cut it again ready for use. As the men were usually in ‘a mess’ of from four to six that tented together (when we had tents) it was the custom for each to do his part toward keeping up the supplies of wood and water. A certain mess consisted of four, and among them was a man of the class noted for lack of energy such as required him to gather wood. This man we will call George.

The fort was located on the line where the sharpshooters had a good range and were not slow to fire at anything that offered a target. A tree stood in front of the fort on the slope and in full range of the sharpshooters and exposed to the extent that no one had ventured to go out and cut it. One day wood was especially scarce and George was invited to contribute a little of his energy toward increasing the supply. As usual he had some very important excuse and could not assist in the undertaking. The patience of the other three became exhausted and he was given to understand that he should do his share in replenishing the supply, and do it at once, or take the consequences.

He said he didn’t know where to get any. The tree standing in front of the fort was pointed out to him and he was told to go out and cut it. He demurred, saying he did not believe any of the crowd would dare to go out there and cut it. One of the boys took this for a challenge and said, ‘I’ll go out and cut half way into the tree if you’ll expose your carcass to cut the other half.’

Well, George could do nothing but accept, so an axe was found and the challenger started over the fort and made quick time to the tree. He didn’t stop to make many observations, not much, Johnny Reb would find him quick enough. He put in his best strokes and soon had his half of the tree cut, meanwhile the sharpshooters had got the range and were prepared to give George a warm reception. George was gritty enough to fell the tree and ran for the fort. The tree was left until dark and then cut up and taken to the ‘gophers,’ as our bomb proofs were called. George was not called on for wood again for some time.

Winter Quarters: Take 3

With the end of the autumn campaign season, it was time for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry to build quarters in which they would live for the winter. It would be the third winter in the field for the veterans who had been mustered in August 1862. Their previous two experiences with building winter quarters were not pleasant. In my post of 12/07/2012 “Eve of Battle,” I wrote of how the men had to stop building their log huts and march across the Rappahannock River to fight in the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg. The following year, as I related in my post of 12/13/2013 Winter Quarters Again…and Again…and Again,” they built their log huts five times, because they were ordered to move their camp four times. Their experience in December 1864 would be little different.

On the 30th of November, the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with the rest of their brigade, marched to relieve a portion of the Ninth Corps near Fort Morton on the southeast side of Petersburg. The men had just begun building log huts when on Dec. 5th, they were told to march early on the 6th to relieve the Fifth Corps that was departing on its mission to destroy the Weldon Railroad (see last week’s post).  The men spent several days here, using their tents for shelter, then moved about a mile to Patrick Station. This place was probably a depot, named for Gen. Marsena Patrick, on the US Military Railroad that brought food and ammunition to the men from City Point.

At Patrick Station good fortune smiled on the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, for a few days anyway. They moved into log huts that had already been built by someone else. However, on Dec 13th they were marched back to Fort Morton where they first started to build their huts two weeks before. Their huts were no more. They had been broken down and all the logs the men had cut and all the planks they had hewn had been carried off to some other encampment. All of their work been for nothing.

But they would remain near Fort Morton, directly across from The Crater where the mine had exploded under the Rebels’ works back on July 30th. There was nothing for them to do but break out the axes, saws, adzes, and spades and begin again.

Destruction of the Weldon Railroad

On December 7, 1864, a strong force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery under the command of Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren left the Petersburg entrenchments and marched south along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Their mission was to destroy as many miles of the Weldon Railroad as they could, making it impossible for the Rebels to rebuild, and the task of getting much needed supplies into Petersburg all the more difficult. The infantry was comprised of Warren’s Fifth Corps augmented by Mott’s Third Division of the Second Corps. The other two divisions of the Second Corps, including our friends in Fourteenth Connecticut were not involved in what became known as “Warren’s Raid,” but were ordered to occupy the works vacated by the Fifth Corps.

The letter below was written by Capt. Benjamin F. Oakes of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. This letter is from the Civil War Archives at Virginia Military Institute and is used with their permission. I include it here because it describes activities very similar to those the men of the Fourteenth were engaged in before they were sorely defeated at Ream’s Station. (Click to review my post.)

Headquarters, 1st Maine Heavy Artillery
In the Field
December 13th, 1864

Dear Sir:

Yours of the 8th inst. reached me this morning and found me roughing it as usual.

The 5th Corps and one Div. of the 2nd (3rd Div) have just returned from a raid on the enemy’s communications. We started at daylight last Wednesday morn, taking the Jerusalem Plank road and crossed the “Nottoway” the first night and there camped, making some 20 miles from camp the first day.

Started at daylight next morn and marched all day without accident, the 5 corps in advance, camping at night near “Jarratt’s Station.” The 5 corps were busy tearing up the railroad (Weldon) that night, and in the morning we commenced following their example. We have made a complete wreck of the Weldon road for nearly 20 miles, viz. from above “Jarratt’s” to “Hickford” (now Emporia) on the Meherrin river.

It would have done you good to see how we destroyed this great artery of rebel life. In the first place we stacked arms alongside the road and the line marched on it and grasping the rails and ends of the “sleepers” on one side, we just turned it right over! Then commenced the work of separating the sleepers from the rails, which was no easy job, for it was a very well constructed road, and of the best material both the iron & wood. Northern “mudsills” soon found a way, however, by means of the Telegraph posts which stood by the road at short intervals.

The sleepers separated, we built piles of them, and dry fence rails, which were also handy, and piled the rails across the top of the pile with a short bearing in the center, and set fire to it. The fire burned everything in the wood line, and so heated the rails, that the ends bent to the ground thus rendering them useless. Our boys made short work of it I tell you. But a few minutes elapsed from the time of taking hold until the rails were heating.

Coming back, we made clean work of the buildings on the route in retaliation for some of our men who were unable to keep up with the column, being murdered and mutilated. Sussex C. H. went up with all the buildings thereabouts. I enclose an ancient specimen of book keeping, which came from a store near the C. H. I would like to write you a long letter about the incidents of the raid, but have not time. We arrived back in camp yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

Remember me to all the family, and friends.
B. F. Oakes

J. S. Richardson, Esq.
P.S. I think Warren is a prisoner

Below are four sketches by A. A. Warren of Warren’s destruction of the Weldon Railroad that appeared in the December 31, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly. It’s exactly the way Captain Oakes described it.

warrens raid 1weldon-railroad-1weldon-railroad-2warrens raid 2