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.

Eating Out the Vitals

Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant knew the end of the war was near. He wrote of his grand strategy aimed at carving up the Confederacy during the winter of 1865 in his Personal Memoirs. One army, under Gen. Canby, was to move immediately on Mobile, AL, then secure Tuscaloosa, Selma and Montgomery. Gen. Sheridan was ordered to march up the Shenandoah Valley and take Lynchburg, VA. Cavalry forces were sent into eastern Tennessee and Mississippi. And the centerpiece of this strategy was “Sherman with a large army eating out the vitals of South Carolina.”

Gen. Sherman had taken Savannah just before Christmas. After a time to refit, resupply, and rest, the two wings of his army started to move into South Carolina about January 20th. The left (northern) wing was under Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, the right (southern) wing was under Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard. Howard moved toward Charleston, then swung north, bypassing the city. Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, fell to Sherman on February 17th. Much of the city was reduced to ashes, and great debates still rage over which side actually started the fires. In great peril of being cutoff from the rest of what remained of the Confederate army, Confederates abandoned Charleston to the Federals the next day.

On the question of who burned Columbia Grant wrote, “In any case, the example set by the Confederates in burning the village of Chambersburg, Pa., a town which was not garrisoned, would seem to make a defense of the act of firing the seat of government of the State most responsible for the conflict then raging, not imperative.”

Meanwhile, on the 15th of January, Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, was taken by combined Federal army and naval forces, and Wilmington, NC, the last major Confederate port on the eastern seaboard was cut off. A month later, when Gen. Schofield moved against Wilmington with a strong force, the Confederates abandoned the city. Schofield was put under Sherman’s command and ordered to move north toward Goldsboro, NC.

By the end of February, Sherman now had three strong armed columns ready to drive up though North Carolina toward Charlotte, Fayetteville, and Goldsboro. The distance between Sherman and Grant was decreasing every day. Grant, always a quartermaster at heart, paid close attention to his friend Sherman’s needs. “I took the precaution to provide for Sherman’s army,” Grant wrote, “in case he should be forced to turn in toward the sea coast before reaching North Carolina, by forwarding supplies to every place where he was liable to make such a deflection from his projected march. I also sent railroad rolling stock, of which we had a great abundance, now that we were not operating the roads in Virginia. The gauge of the North Carolina railroads, being the same as the Virginia railroads, had been altered too; these cars and locomotives were ready for use there without any change.”

And all the while Grant assured Sherman that he was well up on things at Petersburg. “From about Richmond I will watch Lee closely, and if he detaches much more (troops), or attempts to evacuate, will pitch in.”

 

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.

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.

The 40 Left at Andersonville

TWO HUNDRED NINETY soldiers from Connecticut died within the stockade walls of Andersonville Prison, also known as Camp Sumter. Of these, forty were members of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. They had been captured anytime from Chancellorsville in May 1863 until the siege at Petersburg. Some had already survived long months of imprisonment at Belle Isle in Richmond, while for others, Andersonville would be their only and final prison experience. Below is a list of the names of those forty men that I culled from Dorence Atwater’s A List Union Soldiers Buried at Andersonville. Each entry is arranged as follows:

Last name, First name or initials, Rank, Company, Death Date (1864), Cause of Death, Grave number. Lowercase “a” denotes acute and lowercase “c” denotes chronic, and it makes this writer wonder how this was determined. A few of the less familiar causes of death were scorbutus (scurvy), cerebritus (inflammation of the brain or lead poisoning), and anasarca (edema or dropsy).

  1. Anderson, A, Pvt, Co K, June 23, diarrhea c., 2380
  2. Besannon, Peter, Pvt, Co B, June 2, diarrhea, 1493
  3. Brennon, M, Pvt, Co B, July 3, dysentery c., 2833
  4. Brunkissell, H, Pvt, Co D, Aug 30, dysentery, 7306
  5. Burnham F, Cpl, Co I, Oct 11, dysentery c., 10682
  6. Bushnell, Wm. Pvt, Co D, Aug 19, cerebritis, 6184
  7. Cain, Thomas, Pvt, Co G, Sept 4, diarrhea, 7780
  8. Crawford, James, Pvt, Co A, April 28, diarrhea c., 775
  9. Easterly, Thomas, Pvt, Co G, July 31, diarrhea c., 4437
  10. Filby, A, Pvt, Co C, Sept 18, diarrhea c., 9089
  11. Fluit, C W, Pvt, Co G, March 27, diarrhea, 186
  12. Gordon, John. Pvt, Co G, July 7, diarrhea, 3028
  13. Hancock, W, Pvt, Co G, Nov 22, dysentery, 12117
  14. Hilenthal, Jas, Pvt, Co C, May 25, diarrhea, 1350
  15. Holcomb, D, Pvt, Co D, July 18, diarrhea, 3559
  16. Hughes, Ed, Pvt, Co D, June 22, diarrhea, 2330
  17. Kelley, F, Pvt, Co I, Aug 25, rheumatism, 6748
  18. Kingsbury, C, Pvt, Co K, June 3, pneumonia, 1590
  19. Leonard, W, Pvt, Co H, Aug 19, diarrhea a., 6124
  20. McCaulley, Jas, Pvt, Co D, March 20, diarrhea, 119
  21. Miller, A, Pvt, Co D, July 19, scorbutus, 3644
  22. Miller, Charles, Pvt, Co I, June 21, diarrhea a., 2295
  23. Milor, W, Sgt, Co F, Sept 20, diarrhea, 9321
  24. McCreieth, A, Pvt, Co H, Oct 10, scorbutus, 10595
  25. Orr, A, Pvt, Co H, Sept 14, scorbutus, 8276
  26. Pendalton, W, Pvt, Co C, July 6, scorbutus, 2960,
  27. Pompey, C, Pvt, Co B, July 24, diarrhea, 3868
  28. Ringwood, R, Pvt, Co J, Aug 25, diarrhea, 6798
  29. Scott W, Pvt, Co D, July 7, scorbutus, 3010
  30. Seward, G H. Pvt, Co A, June 24, dysentery c., 2406
  31. Shults, C T, Pvt, Co I, Aug 12, dysentery, 5385
  32. Smith, J, Pvt, Co I, July 18, diarrhea c., 3522
  33. Steele, Sam, Pvt, Co C, Aug 6, diarrhea c., 4892
  34. Stephens, B 11, Pvt, Aug 28, diarrhea, 7070
  35. Taylor, J, Pvt, Co I, Oct 1, scorbutus, 10142
  36. Taylor, Moses, Pvt, Co E, April 14, bronchitis, 541
  37. Thompson, Wm T, Pvt, Co I, Aug 1, diarrhea, 4443
  38. Thompson, F, Pvt, Co A, Aug 12, diarrhea c., 5427
  39. Valter, H, Pvt, Co A, July 10, anasarca, 3107
  40. Wikert, Henry, Pvt, Co C, Aug 13, dysentery, 5543

P1010037Here is a photo of the Connecticut memorial at Andersonville National Cemetery. It depicts a young Connecticut soldier looking straight ahead holding his hat in his left hand. The dedication on the bronze plaque reads:

IN MEMORY OF THE MEN OF CONNECTICUT WHO SUFFERED IN SOUTHERN MILITARY PRISONS 1861-1865

A True Connecticut Hero

P1010308smThe photo at right is of a monument to the unknown dead at Salisbury, NC National Cemetery. It states that 11,700 unknown Union POWs who died at the Salisbury prison stockade during 1864 and 1865 were buried in eighteen trenches. A simple stone marker stands at each end of each trench.

According to the National Park Service, 12,920 Union soldiers died at Andersonville. Of these, only 460 were laid to rest as “unknown.” Each grave is marked with its own numbered headstone, and all but those of the unknown are inscribed with the man’s name, state, and unit, if known. The difference between Salisbury and Andersonville was a teenager from Terryville, Connecticut named Dorence Atwater, who was responsible for keeping the official list of burials at Andersonville. My purpose here is not to provide you with a biography of Atwater, which may be easily found here, but rather to touch on what made Atwater the right young man for this most somber task.

Captured shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 7, 1863, Atwater was among the first groups of prisoners sent to Andersonville, arriving there on March 1, 1864. He had just turned nineteen years old. He was sent to the prison hospital where it was discovered he was educated and had excellent penmanship. Atwater was detailed to the hospital as a clerk and one of his tasks was to keep a daily record of prisoner deaths.

atwaterDorence Atwater knew that every soldier’s greatest fear was to die as an unknown, and that his loved ones would never know what had happened to him. Today, we call this “closure.” When a man died inside the stockade, a friend would write the dead man’s name and regiment on a small piece of paper and slip it inside a pocket or his shirt. When the corpse was brought outside to the dead house, Atwater recorded the man’s identity and assigned a numbered location for his grave.

Atwater later wrote, “The appalling mortality was such that I suspected that it was the design of the Rebel Government to kill and maim our prisoners by exposure and starvation so that they would forever be totally unfit for military service, and that they withheld these facts. Accordingly, in the latter part of August, 1864, I began to secretly copy the entire list of our dead, which I succeeded in doing, and brought safely through the lines with me in March, 1865.” Had his secret copy been discovered, Atwater would almost certainly have paid for it with his life.

avl_stoneDorence Atwater’s only goal was to publish the entire list so that the families of those who died at Andersonville would have the comfort of knowing what had happened to their loved ones. The list should have been received with gratitude by the Federal government, but they tried to confiscate it. (The full details of this bureaucratic heavy-handedness can be found here.) But Atwater wouldn’t be denied. In July, 1865, Dorence, along with his ally Clara Barton and dozens of skilled sign makers, traveled to Andersonville and marked each of the graves on Atwater’s list so that permanent stones, like the one shown above, could be made and placed at the head of each grave.

In all of my studies on the Civil War, I can think of no other instance in which one man’s actions served to benefit so many. Dorence Atwater opposed Confederate authorities and his own government alike in order to honor the memories of nearly 13,000 of his fallen comrades. In Dorence Atwater I see a young man who possessed the skills necessary to complete a most difficult assignment. With great courage and tenacity he would not be dissuaded from accomplishing his goal, and he never thought the great personal sacrifices he made worthy of counting.

In return for this great service, Atwater was rewarded with two months hard labor at a prison in upstate New York. But the Federal government would soon change its opinion of this young hero. In 1868, Atwater was appointed U.S. Consul to the Seychelles and later he filled that same post in Tahiti.