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An Orphan’s War – Part 3

Having focused on Andersonville Prison in three January posts (01/16,15, 01/23/15, 01/30/15), it is now time to relate the last part of the singular of Private William H. E. Mott. It might be helpful to review the first two parts for better understanding of the context before reading this last part. Mott arrived at Andersonville about mid-June 1864.In early September, after the fall of Atlanta, Mott was among the many thousands who were sent from Andersonville to other prisons such as Savannah or Millen, Georgia, because the Confederate authorities believed Sherman would try to liberate Andersonville Prison.

Private John A. Cain was aboard one of the first prison trains to arrive at Andersonville from Richmond. He survived the war and served as a strong witness for the prosecution of Captain Henri Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison. His testimony is therefore, in my judgment, credible. I include the following information included in the Epilogue of Diary of a Dead Man, because it specifically mentions Mott. What we don’t know is the motives behind Mott’s “defection.”

Note: The material below is from background material included in The Diary of a Dead Man, 1862-1864, the unedited diary and letters of Private Ira Pettit, compiled by J. P. Ray. Mott was instrumental in preserving Pettit’s diary for Pettit’s parents.

It becomes quite evident from subsequent events that Private Cain was one of those thousands who was shuttled back and forth from Andersonville to Savannah, to Millen, and back again to Andersonville during the last four months of 1864. From St. John’s College Hospital on June 3,1865, Private Cain corresponded with the Secretary of War. His letter to the Honorable E. M. Stanton read, in part:

“Deeming it my duty to myself and my country, I here send you a partial list of Union prisoners who left the Stockade prison at Camp Lawton near Millen, Ga. on, or about the 10th of November last; and is supposed to have taken the ‘Oath of Allegiance’ to the late ‘Confederate Government.’ Should this be of any service to you in bringing them to justice I shall consider myself amply compensated for my trouble.

I am, sir, your most humble and obedient servant,
Jno. A. Cain, Co. E, 2 Mass Cav.,
Ward 8, St. Johns College Hospital, Annapolis, Maryland.

List of Prisoners of War, who left the stockade at the Solicitation of rebel authorities at Millen, Ga., on or about the 10th, November 1864 for disloyal purposes. …Wm. E. Mott, F., 14 Conn;…”

Private Cain’s list contained the names of one hundred and thirty-four persons, and in nearly all cases he listed the company, regiment, and state or Federal unit in which the individual had served. Aside from William E. Mott, Company F, Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut, Private Cain listed two other men from the Fourteenth Regiment’s Company F, Connecticut, and four members from Companies A, B, L, and M, Second Massachusetts Cavalry, who allegedly embraced allegiance to the Confederate government on that day.

The information provided by Private John A. Cain in reference to Private Mott was duly noted in the appropriate categories of the War Department’s military files, and note was also made that Mott reached the Union lines on March 20, 1865, at New Bern, North Carolina.

According to Mrs. John Gregory of New York City, Private Mott had come ‘home’ in April, 1865, on furlough after having spent eight months as a prisoner, and having been transferred from one prison to another. Mr. Mott would later assert to the Federal government that he had spent over ten months in Andersonville, which was an exaggeration, after which he had escaped and joined Sherman on his march through the South. While in New York, Mott gave Mrs. Gregory Private Pettit’s diary and she sent by mail to Pettit’s parents in upstate New York.

There could have been several reasons why Wm. H. E. Mott would have sworn allegiance to the Confederacy. The most likely reason, in my opinion, was a matter of personal survival, and whatever else Mott was, he was certainly a survivor. By removing himself from the deadly prison stockades, he instantly enjoyed better water and food, and healthier living conditions. Opportunities for escape, and the probability of success, were also much higher outside the prison walls. When Mott did finally escape, he headed north toward the Union lines. It is also worthy of note that although the war department had John Cain’s list, no steps were taken to prosecute Mott, and he received the standard veteran’s pension of $72 per month.

Peeble’s Farm

Gen. Grant’s strategy for victory at Petersburg remained basically unchanged from mid-June, when all out assaults failed to produce any positive results and only added to the ever-lengthening lists of dead and wounded Union soldiers. This strategy had two main parts. First, Grant tried to keep pressure on Lee to keep him from dispatching troops to other threatened points (such as the Shenandoah Valley of Atlanta). Second, Grant wanted to cut Petersburg off from all supply routes so that the Confederates would have to surrender or abandon the city.

blg101014-1In the map above (L.O.C. Digital Map Collection http://www.loc.gov/item/99448332/) Confederate lines are drawn in blue and the Union in red. At the end of September 1864 the western end of the Union Line ran from Fort Wadsworth at the north southward along the western side of the Weldon Railroad, which is just right of center above. Grant’s two objective’s can be seen at the upper right, the Boydton Plank Road and in the upper right corner the South Side Railroad. Seize these two vital links to the rest of the Confederacy and the situation in Petersburg would become dire indeed.

Early on the morning of September 30th, while Lee was doing everything possible to retake Fort Harrison 32 miles away, the First and Second Divisions of the Fifth Corps, under Gen. G. K. Warren, and the Second and Third Divisions of the Ninth Corps under Gen. John Parke, marched westward from Fort Wadsworth toward the Confederate line along Squirrel Level Road. Early in the afternoon Griffen’s Division of Warren’s Corps charged from the vicinity of Poplar Springs Church across the fields of Peeble’s Farm (misspelled Peeple on map). The Confederates resisted at first, but could do nothing to stop the attack. Fort Archer, the strongest point in the Squirrel Level line was soon taken. Federal engineers reversed the fortifications and it was renamed Fort Wheaton.

Confederate Gen. Henry Heth scraped together every man he could find and counter-attacked late that afternoon. The furious attack fell upon the left flank of the Ninth Corps who had taken a position just south of the Fifth near Peeble’s Farm. The Ninth Corps was routed by Heth’s sudden assault, but Warren rallied both his and Parke’s command and forced Heth to give up the fight for the day. The next day both Gen. Heth and cavalry Gen. Wade Hampton attacked the advanced Union positions, but both attacks were repulsed.

On October 2nd, a division of the Second Corps reinforced the Fifth and Ninth Corps and the Confederates were forced to retire to their main fortifications that paralleled the vital Boydton Plank Road. The stage was now set for Grant to try to seize that road and tighten his strangle hold on Petersburg.

Lee Loses a Stronghold

As September 1864 drew to a close, Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant renewed his efforts to cut Petersburg off from its supply routes. Only two such routes remained south of the Appomattox River, the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. As a rubber band can only stretch so far before it breaks, so Grant tried to force Gen. Lee to stretch the Confederate lines at Petersburg beyond their breaking point. This strategy became action in twin battles at opposite ends of the long siege lines, Chaffin’s Farm at the northeastern end and at Peeble’s Farm at the southwestern end.

Grant ordered Gen. David Birney’s Tenth Corps and Gen. E. O. C. Ord’s Eighteenth Corps of Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, just as the Second Corps had done twice before. The long columns of troops, about 26,000 in all, quietly crossed the pontoon bridges late at night on Wednesday, September 28th.

The following morning Birney’s corps attacked Rebel positions at New Market Heights. The assault was led by a division of U. S. Colored Troops, and the approach to the Confederate works was covered by all sorts of obstacles, including abatis (below left) and chevaux de frise (below right). The black soldiers fought their way through, all the while taking heavy casualties, until finally they drove the Confederate defenders from their entrenchments. This display of courage silenced many who said negro soldiers would never make good soldiers and do their duty in a fight.

Abatis

Chevaux de frise

 

 

Meanwhile, Ord’s corps, at about 1:00 p.m., with Gen. Stannard’s division leading the way, stormed and took Fort Harrison. The fort was thought by many to be the strongest point in Richmond’s outer works and vital to its defenses. About an hour later, U. S. Colored Troops assaulted Fort Gilmer, just to the south of Fort Harrison. Again, the black soldiers fought very well, but they were not successful. A few did make it so far as to stand upon the rampart, but they were immediately shot down.

The following day, September 30th, Gen. Lee assembled eight brigades of veteran troops. During the afternoon these troops tried desperately to retake Fort Harrison, but the Yankee defenders had turned the fort into a bastion of their own. Every Confederate charge was met and shattered with heavy, deadly fire. Fort Harrison remained in Union hands and became a strong-point in their newly advanced line of fortifications.

BTW: Fort Harrison is part of Richmond National Battlefield Park. It can easily be found on Google Earth by searching on “Fort Harrison, Henrico, VA.” Next week we’ll look at the Battle of Peeble’s Farm which was fought September 29 to October 2, 1864 and set the stage for action the Fourteenth Connecticut would see later in October.

 

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.”

 

 

 

Moon-Blind on the North Anna

By Friday, the 20th of May, 1864, skirmishing and fighting around Spotsylvania Courthouse had ended, but the killing wasn’t quite finished. A soldier in the 20th Massachusetts, who had deserted three times since the start of the campaign, was executed by firing squad. All of Gibbon’s Division of the Second Corps, including the Fourteenth Connecticut stood silently in ranks to witness the execution.

That night at about eleven o’clock, the men of the Fourteenth and the rest of the Seconds Corps began to march away from Spotsylvania to the east. As dawn broke, the men reached the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and turned south and passed by a simple white house beside the railroad at Guinea Station. Whispers passed from the men in front to those behind. “That’s where Stonewall Jackson died.”

By noon they were marching through Bowling Green. Just beyond the town they turned west onto a road that led to Milford where a halt was finally called. The men built strong breastworks until after midnight.

On Sunday morning, after some skirmishing, the cavalry brought in a large group of Union soldiers they had recaptured from the Rebels. Then the Second Corps marched west to the vicinity of what is now Ruther Glen and turned south toward the North Anna River. Confederates north of the river offered token resistance, then torched the railroad bridge as they withdrew to breastworks on the south side of the river. The Harper’s Weekly drawing below depicts the burning of that bridge.

railroad-bridge

The Fifth and Sixth Corps were heavily engaged at Jericho Mills to the west, but the Second Corps was involved only skirmishing, some of it sharp and deadly, but no major battle.  (Click here for a map of the North Anna Battlefield.) Col. Samuel S. Carroll had been wounded during the fighting at the Mule Shoe on May 12th, and his replacement was the brigade’s former commander, Col. Thomas Smyth. Note the advanced position of Smyth’s Brigade on the map for a better understanding of the following amusing incident from Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.

Private Joseph Schlichter of Company B relates an interesting incident in connection with this engagement at North Anna River as follows: May 22rd, I864, we reached North Anna and the regiment immediately set to work building fortifications which were completed early in the evening. Being very tired, we didn’t stop to pitch our tents, so we lay in the open field to sleep. My tent mate said to me, “Joe. l wouldn’t lay on your back and have the moon shine in your face for it may injure your eyes’ eyes. I only laughed at him and fell fast asleep.

On the 23rd, we bivouacked on the banks of the North Anna River and that evening I discovered I was moon blind. I began to think Comrade Chaplie’s words had meaning in them, but I didn’t give it away just then. On the morning of the 24th, we crossed the river and immediately deployed as skirmishers. We advanced toward the rebel lines and kept the earthworks under a heavy fire until dark. The rebels formed a flank movement which compelled us to retreat. We retreated for about a quarter of a mile in good order when we again formed in a line or battle. Presently Adjutant Hincks, who was commanding our regiment at that time. asked “Is Joseph Schlichter here ?” I answered “Yes sir.” “Will you go out and see if we have an outpost or not, or whether there are any men between the enemy and us?” he said. I didn’t like to tell him I was unable to go on account of moon blindness, fearing I might be thought a coward, so I started.

After picking my way the best I could toward the enemy’s lines for some time I received the challenge, “Halt. who comes there?” “Friend without a countersign,” replied. “What regiment do you belong to?” he asked. Thinking these were rebels I answered. “The Sixteenth North Carolina.” I was immediately ordered to lay down my arms and surrender which I did. “What regiment do I surrender to?” I asked. “The Fifteenth Massachusetts,” was the reply. “All right. I am glad to hear it for l belong to the Fourteenth Connecticut,” I said.

The lieutenant of the Fifteenth Massachusetts advanced and took a good look at me. “What makes you lie and tell us you belong to the North Carolina regiment?” he said. I told him the circumstances, and then I said, “if your answer had been different I should have made an about face and double-quick marched toward the Union lines. When I was ordered to surrender I knew I was still in the Union lines.” “How came you to give me the Sixteenth North Carolina?” he then asked. “Because I knew that regiment was in front,” I replied. “How did you know?” “Because,” I answered, “there were some prisoners captured this afternoon belonging to that regiment.”

“Who commands your regiment?” was his next question. “Adjutant Hincks.” “Did he know you couldn’t see?” he asked. “No sir,” I answered. “I did not tell him.” He said, “You did nobly. I want to see your commanding officer.”

I returned with the lieutenant to my regiment when they saw I was moon blind. This lasted six weeks and in that time was not excused from duty. I was led by two comrades from the time we left North Anna until we reached Petersburg.”

Even though I write fiction, this story is not an invention. It may be thought that Private Schlichter was just trying to shirk his duty, but the fact that Adjutant Hincks sought him out for this special assignment tells us Schlichter was a trusted soldier. Even more telling is the following testimony from Schlichter’s sergeant:

“Of the ten old members left June 1st, 1864, it is believed that only one went through the whole three years without ever leaving the regiment on account of sickness, wounds, or special detail to other duty and that one was Private Joseph Schlichter. Never missing a battle or skirmish or any action in which the Fourteenth was ever engaged. always remaining as he enlisted, a private, yet he enjoys the distinction that some of his comrades have accorded him of having probably poured more lead into the rebel ranks than any other man in the Fourteenth, at least if ever a question of this nature should arise, our Joe would be the champion that Company B would put forth.”

And so, dear readers, I need your help to make sense of this incident. What malady could cause someone severe vision loss for a period of six weeks? All serious comments and suggestions are welcome.

Tribute to a Fallen Hero

Captain Samuel W. FiskeWhile the armies were locked in a deadly stalemate around Spotsylvania Courthouse, a private and poignant scene was being played out a several miles to the north at a Federal military hospital in Fredericksburg. Captain Samuel W. Fiske, Company G of the Fourteenth Connecticut, was dying with his young wife and his two little children at his bedside.

If you have not already done so, please read my post a.k.a Dunn Browne to learn more about how and why this minister of the gospel became an officer in the infantry. Also of special interest is my post Captain Fiske: Dead or Alive about his capture during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

In his last letter to the Springfield Republican, Captain Fiske revealed his pastor’s heart as he wrote of his belief that if the general officers would simply talk to the men, and explain what was needed and why, the men might be inspired to even greater service to the army and the country. He closed that final letter as follows:

I believe a good deal more might be made by a different course of proceeding, that our boys are something more than shooting machines, or if machines, that there are strings and pulleys and wheels in them that mere military orders don’t reach, and yet which might have much effect in deciding battles—these great and terrible battles that are to decide this opening campaign, and probably bring the war to an end—these coming successes (as we devoutly hope) that are to atone for the disgraceful reverses our arms have this spring sustained in every quarter where they have been engaged. Oh for power to speak a word that might thrill the breast of every Union soldier and rouse in him that holy enthusiasm for our right cause, which should make every blow struck irresistible, and carry our arms victorious right into the citadel of rebellion, and conquer a right peace. One or two of Meade’s modest, earnest orders, published to the army near the Gettysburg times, had a wonderfully happy effect. I trust more may be issued, and that every opportunity may be taken to inspire the patriotism and enthusiasm of our troops, and keep before their minds the great principles which first sent them forth from their peaceful homes to fight for endangered liberty and republican government, for God and freedom throughout the world.

Yours truly, DUNN BROWNE

Early on the morning of May 6th, during the Battle of the Wilderness, Captain Fiske was leading his company in an attempt to stem the frenzied assaults of Longstreet’s corps when he was struck in the chest by a single bullet. When his men were forced to fall back, they carried their stricken captain to the rear. After receiving cursory treatment at a field hospital, he was sent to Fredericksburg by ambulance.

The bullet had penetrated his right lung. At the time, internal surgery was in its infancy, and efforts to extract the bullet were not successful. The sad news was telegraphed to his wife, Lizzie, who traveled by train to Fredericksburg. She was able to spend several days with her husband, who was in good spirits until the end. But on Sunday, May 22nd, he knew his time had come. “Today I shall receive my marching orders,” he said. “Well, I am ready.”

Amen, Brother Fiske. You fought the good fight to the end.

Spotsylvania – Laurel Hill

Hancock’s Second was the last corps of the Army of the Potomac to march out of the Wilderness. They served as the rear guard of the army until it was clear that Lee was concentrating his Confederates around Spotsylvania Courthouse. The distance was short, only five or six miles, but Lee’s cavalry delayed the Federal advance, and Warren’s Fifth Corps, which left their lines in the Wilderness during the night of May 6-7, didn’t reach Spotsylvania until the morning of May 8th.

Confederate infantry occupied a low ridge known as Laurel Hill and they had built a stout line of breastworks along its crest. Warren made several unsuccessful and costly assaults against these works. Later in the day Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps arrived and an evening assault by both corps also ended in defeat.

The morning of May 9th, Gen. John Sedgwick was shot in the head by a Rebel sharpshooter shortly after saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Command of the Sixth Corps passed to Gen. H. G. Wright. Hancock’s Second Corps finally arrived and was directed south across the Po River to threaten the western flank of Lee’s army near the Block House bridge. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the positions late in the day of May 9th.) Lee countered this move by sending a couple of division to secure the flank.

On May 10th, Warren wanted one more chance to assault the Laurel Hill works. Gibbon’s Division of the Second Corps was withdrawn from across the Po and added to the assaulting force. Before the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut went into battle, an officer from the Fifth Corps who happened to be passing near their line, was seriously wounded in the leg. The regimental surgeons set up a makeshift operating table and performed an emergency amputation right in full view of the men.

At this time the Fourteenth had eleven officers and about 200 enlisted men fit for duty. John Hirst, brother of Sgt. Ben Hirst (who should be familiar to regular readers of this blog), gave a detailed account of this fight in Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.: (Click here for a Wikipedia map of the assault.)

We were in line pretty early in the morning (May 10th) and expected some hot work before breakfast when we recrossed the Po. After marching around considerable our division (Gibbon’s) was ordered to go to the support of another corps (Warren’s Fifth) which was having a hard fight, and being driven back. At this time the woods were on fire in different places and the enemy were throwing shot and shell at a rapid rate right into our teeth as we advanced to the front, How we got through it all I don’t know, but we were kept right along until we came near their breastworks and had a hot and heavy time of it until our seventy rounds of ammunition were exhausted, when we were relieved and ordered to fall back about one hundred and fifty yards where we received more ammunition and then threw up a line of breastworks for our protection during the night. This breastwork business is getting to be a great thing in the army and it is the first thing we have to do as soon as we come to a halt. It don’t matter how far we advance, we find the rebels have thrown up breastworks to impede our progress, and if we gain an inch of ground from them, we put one up at once for its protection. Grant is sticking to them like a leech and I think we are getting the best of it.