by George L. Kilmer, Company I, 14TH New York heavy artillery.
On the 25th of March, 1865, General O. B. Willcox
's division, of the Ninth Corps, was formed on the Petersburg lines
in the following order from right to left [see map, p. 538]: Second Brigade (Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Ely
), from the Appomattox
to Battery Ix, near the City Point Railroad; Third Brigade1
(Colonel N. B. McLaughlen
), from Battery Ix to Fort Haskell
; First Brigade (Colonel Samuel Harriman
), from Fort Haskell
to Fort Morton
, directly facing Cemetery Hill
was a bastioned work, high and impregnable.
, the next down the line, on lower ground and quite under the best guns that Lee
had on the crest, was a small field redoubt mounting six rifled guns and holding a feeble infantry garrison.
Eighty rods farther was Fort Stedman
, a stronger work than Haskell
, and not so well commanded from Cemetery Hill
Two hundred rods from Stedman
was Fort McGilvery, near the river and out of range of Lee
's heavy ordnance.
In front of Haskell
there were woods, marshes, and a sluggish stream completely obstructing the passage of men and guns from the enemy's works eastward, but at Stedman
, where the lines were but forty rods apart, the ground of both lines and all between was solid, and feasible for rapid movements of bodies of every arm of service, even to cavalry, and so here was a road that a master-stroke might open.
The headquarters of the 14th were at Stedman
, where our acting colonel, Major George M. Randall
, had command.
Captain Charles H. Houghton
, of Company L, commanded at Fort Haskell
About 3 o'clock on the morning of March 25th Lieutenants C. A. Lochbrunner
and Frank M. Thomson
, who were on night duty at Fort Stedman
, informed Major Randall
of an unusual commotion in front of the works.
was directed to arouse the command at once and have the men moved to the works as quickly and as quietly as possible.
The attack fell first upon Battery X and the breastworks on the right of it, and at that time the most of the officers and men of the garrison were in their places.
Captain J. P. Cleary
, Lieutenant Thomson
, and Sergeant John Delack
(who had been on guard duty during the night) had hauled a gun to the sally-port on the face of the fort toward Battery X, and it was opened upon the assailants.
Many of the Confederates
were captured and sent to the rear.2
The guns on this face were fired several times under command of the officers of the battery.
The artillerymen in Battery X attempted to defend their guns, and Lieutenant E. B. Nye
, commanding the section, was shot down beside his pieces.
A second attack was immediately made on the rear of Fort Stedman
by an overwhelming force that entered the breach at Battery X.
The Confederates climbed over the parapets and in at the embrasures, and it was so dark that the garrison could not distinguish their own men from the enemy.
Finding it impossible to hold the fort, the officers and men of the garrison who could get away took shelter on the outside of the parapets, and continued the fight with muskets.
After daylight some of the officers and men of the 14th made their way along the moat of the trenches to Fort Haskell
, and others fell back in line down the road toward Meade's Station, and formed on the slope within rifle range of their old works.
was captured just outside of Fort Stedman
, but managed to get away from his captors and reach Fort Haskell
The Confederates had silenced the pickets in front of Fort Stedman
by taking advantage of General Grant
's order of amnesty to deserters from the enemy.
This order encouraged these deserters to bring in their arms, by offering payment for them.3
On this occasion Confederates claiming to be deserters came in in large numbers, and very soon overpowered the pickets and passed on to the first line of works.
It was the intention of the Confederates
to surprise Fort Haskell
This work was guarded by two rows of abatis, and at the gap where the pickets filed out and in a sentinel was on duty all night.
The man who served the last watch that morning on this outer post was Sylvester E. Hough
, Company M, 14th Regiment, and soon after he went on post (at 3 o'clock) he saw blue-lights flash up along the picket-pits.
He also heard the sound of chopping at the abatis on the lines between Stedman
and the Confederate
works on its front.
He hallooed to the second sentinel at Haskell
, whose post was at the bridge across the moat, and an alarm was called out in the fort.
then advanced down the picket trail toward the outposts, and as he did so the first cannon was fired from Stedman
, and the muffled sounds of the fighting there were heard.
There was a long slope between Fort Haskell
and the picket-pits, and on this slope Hough
met a column of men moving stealthily up toward our western front.
The enemy were in two ranks, and had filed into our lines through the gap in front of Stedman
, and were moving upon us unopposed, for they were between us and our pickets.
If some traitor had divulged their secret movement hours in advance the men of this column could not have been at greater disadvantage than they now were by the chances of war. Hough
, unseen by the enemy, ran back to the fort to advise the gunners.
Three howitzers, double-shotted with grape, were trained upon the ground.
The garrison had been called to arms, and the firing at Fort Stedman
aroused the cry on all sides, “They have taken Fort Stedman
The storytold by Hough
confirmed our suspicions that we were to be attacked, also; we had not long to wait.
When the assailants neared the abatis we could hear their tread and their suppressed tones.
“Wait,” said Captain Houghton
; “wait till you see them, then fire.”
A breath seemed an age, for we knew nothing of the numbers before us. Finally, the Confederate
leader called out, “Steady!
We'll have their works.
Steady, my men!”
Our nerves rebelled, and like a flash the thought passed along the parapet, “Now!”
Not a word was spoken, but in
perfect concert the cannon and muskets were discharged upon the hapless band.
It must have been a surprise for the surprisers, though fortunately for them we had been too hasty, and, as they were moving by the flank along our front, only the head of their column received the fire.
But this repulse did not end it; the survivors closed up and tried it again.
Then they divided into squads and moved on the flanks, keeping up the by-play until there were none left.
Daylight soon gave us perfect aim, and their game was useless.
This stunning blow to the assailants in front of Haskell
occurred just as another column of Confederates, that had filed into the works at Stedman
, started on a rapid conquest along the trenches toward Fort McGilvery.
We could see from Haskell
the flashing of rifles as these men moved on and on through the camps of the parapet guards.
Another column started also from Stedman
along the breast-works linking our two forts.
This division aimed to take Haskell
in the right rear.
At the very outset, this last movement met with a momentary check, for it fell upon two concealed batteries, XI artillery.
He placed one piece in the right rear angle, where the embrasure admitted the working of it with an oblique as well as a direct range.
About the same time some officers and men of the 100th Pennsylvania and 3d Maryland regiments, who previous to the attack had occupied the breast-works adjoining, came in and were posted on the rear works by Captain George Brennan
, of Company
From Sketches made in 1886.
On the morning of March 25th, General Gordon's column (advancing from Colquitt's salient) moved over the level ground shown on the left, in the lower picture.
Fort Stedman was located in front of the clump of trees. |
and XII, and the 59th and 29th Massachusetts regiments, stationed near and now under arms.
Meanwhile there was a lull around Haskell
; but it was of short duration, for it was now so light that the enemy could observe from his main line every point on the scene of conflict.
He opened on Haskell
's guns, and also with his own in front.
Our little garrison divided, one half guarding the front parapet, the remainder rallying along the right wall to meet the attack threatened by the division coming against it from Stedman
At this juncture, Captain Christian Woerner
, of the 3d New Jersey Battery, who had been on duty at the headquarters of the artillery brigade, in the rear, came into the fort and took charge of the M, who commanded in that quarter.5
The venturesome Confederate column had borne down all opposition, captured batteries XI and XII, and driven all the infantry from the trenches, and, with closed — up ranks, came bounding along.6
At a point thirty rods from us the ground was cut by a ravine, and from there it rose in a gentle grade up to the fort.
's one angle gun and about 50 muskets were all we could summon to repel this column, and there were probably an even 60 cannon and 1000 muskets at Stedman
and on the main Confederate line concentrating their fire upon Haskell
to cover this charge.7
The advancing troops reserved their fire.
Our thin line mounted the banquettes — the wounded and sick men
loading the muskets, while those with sound hands stood to the parapets and blazed away.
The foremost assailants recoiled and scattered.
The Confederate forts opposite us gave a response more fierce than ever, and a body of sharp-shooters posted within easy range sent us showers of minies.
The air was full of shells, and on glancing up one saw, as it were, a flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating about in a gale.
At first the shells did not explode.
Their fuses were too long, so they fell intact, and the fires went out. Sometimes they rolled about like foot-balls, or bounded along the parapet and landed in the watery ditch.
But when at last the Confederate
gunners got the range, their shots became murderous.
We held the battalion flag in the center of the right parapet, and a shell aimed there exploded on the mark.
A sergeant of the color company was hoisted bodily into the air by the concussion.
Strange to say, he was unharmed, but two of his fellow-soldiers, Sergeant Thomas Hunton
and Corporal Stanford Bigelow
, were killed, and the commandant, Houghton
, who stood near the flag, was prostrated with a shattered thigh.
This was all the work of one shell.
Before our commander could be removed, a second shell wounded him in the head and in the hand.
The charging column was now well up the slope, and Captain Woerner
aided our muskets by some well-directed case-shot.
Each check on this column by our effective firing was a spur to the Confederates
at a distance to increase their fire upon us. They poured in solid and case shot, and had twelve Coehorn
mortar-batteries sending up bombs, and of these Fort Haskell
received its complement.
Lieutenant Julius G. Tuerk
, of Woerner
's battery, had an arm torn off by a shell while he was sighting that angle gun. Captain Woerner
relieved him, and mounted the gun-carriage, glass in hand, to fix a more destructive range.
He then left the piece with a corporal, the highest subordinate fit for duty, with instruction to continue working it on the elevation just set, while he himself went to prepare another gun for closer quarters.
The corporal leaped upon the gun-staging and was brained by a bullet before he could fire a shot.
The Confederate column was preceded, as usual, by sharp-shooters, and these, using the block-houses of the cantonments along the trenches for shelter, succeeded in getting their bullets into the fort, and also in gaining command of our rear sally-port.
All of our outside supports had been driven off, and we were virtually surrounded.
The flag-pole had been shot away, and the post colors were down.
To make matters still worse, one of our own batteries, a long range siege-work away back on the bluff near the railroad, began to toss shell into the fort.
We were isolated, as all could see; our flag was from time to time depressed below the ramparts, or if floating was enveloped in smoke; we were reserving our little stock of ammunition for the last emergency, the hand-to-hand struggle that seemed inevitable.
The rear batteries interpreted the situation with us as a sign that Haskell
had yielded, or was about to yield.8
Our leader at Haskell
, Captain Houghton
, was permanently disabled, but Major Randall
had come into the fort soon after Houghton
With the men of the Stedman battalion who had reached us, he now joined in the defense.
When the fire from our rear batteries became serious, Major Randall
called for a volunteer guard to sally with the colors, in rear of the fort, to show the troops behind us that Haskell
was still holding on. Our color-bearer, Robert Kiley
, and eight men responded.
led the way along the narrow bridge-stringers over the moat (the planks having been removed to prevent a sudden rush of the enemy) and the flag was waved several times in the faces of the Confederates
, who hung about the rear of the fort, and who opened fire upon the colors.
Four of the guard were hit, one being mortally wounded, but the fire from our rear batteries ceased.
The ranks of the enemy soon broke under the fire of our muskets and Woerner
's well-aimed guns, but some of the boldest came within speaking distance and hailed us to surrender.
The main body hung back beyond canister range near the ravine at the base of the slope, but within range of our bullets.
at last held his fire, having three pieces on the north front loaded with grape.
Suddenly a great number of little parties or squads, of three to six men each, rose with a yell from their hidings down along those connecting parapets, and dashed toward us. The parapets joined on to the fort, and upon these the Confederates
leaped, intending thus to scale our walls.
had anticipated this; the rear angle embrasure had been contrived for the emergency, and he let go his grape.
Some of the squads were cut down, others ran off to cover, and not a few passed on beyond our right wall to the rear of the work and out of reach of the guns.
With this the aggressive spirit of that famous movement melted away forever.
, the dashing leader of the sortie, it was now no longer a question of forging ahead, but of getting back out of the net into which he had plunged in the darkness.
The way of retreat was back over the ridge in front of Stedman
This was swept by two withering fires, for Fort Haskell
commanded the southern slope of the ridge, and Battery Ix9
and Fort McGilvery the northern.
either slope uncovered the retreat would be comparatively easy and safe for Gordon
, and the Haskell
battery was the one at once able to effect the severest injury to his retreating ranks, and apparently the easiest to silence.
The rifle and mortar batteries and sharp-shooters in our front took for a target the right forward angle of Haskell
, the only point from which Woerner
's guns could reach that coveted slope.
A heavy fire was poured into this angle, while the Confederates
began to scramble back to their own lines.
removed his ammunition to the magazine, out of reach of the bombs that were dropping all about the gun. His men cut fuses below and brought up the shell as needed.
The brave soldier mounted the breastworks with his field-glass and signaled to the gunner for every discharge, and he made the slope between Stedman
and the Confederate
's) a place of fearful slaughter.
My mind sickens at the memory of it — a real tragedy in war — for the victims had ceased fighting, and were now struggling between imprisonment on the one hand, and death or home on the other.
Suddenly an officer on a white horse rode out under the range of Woerner
's gun and attempted to rally the panic-stricken mass.
He soon wheeled about, followed by some three hundred men whom he drew back out of range, halted, and formed for a charge to silence the gun. The movement was distinctly observed by us in Haskell
, and Woerner
continued to pound away at the slope, while the infantry once more formed on the parapets.
The storming-party moved direct on our center, as if determined now to avoid contact with the guns of either angle.
But our muskets were well aimed, and the new ranks were thinned out with every volley.
The party crossed the ravine, and there the leader fell, shot through the head.
Many of his men fell near him, and the last spasm of the assault was ended.
Gradually the fire on both sides slackened, and many of the Confederates
that were still within our lines laid down their arms.
now resolved to recapture Fort Stedman
, and taking a number of the men of the 14th Regiment, belonging to the Stedman battalion, formed on the parade in rear of Haskell
He was soon joined by detachments of officers and men from the 3d Maryland, 100th Pennsylvania, and 29th Massachusetts regiments, and the column charged down the breastworks to Fort Stedman
, the 3d Maryland men, led by Captain Joseph F. Carter
, being the first to enter the work and demand its surrender.
At the same time Major N. J. Maxwell
, of the 100th Pennsylvania, and a number of his men, mounted the parapet and planted their colors there.
This column re-occupied Fort Stedman
and Battery X and the breast-works, and the prisoners and rifles captured were awarded to the officers of McLaughlen
's brigade, who led the counter-charge from Fort Haskell
and his men took possession of the recaptured works and continued to garrison them.10
[See, also, General Hartranft
's article, p. 584 and following.]
General hospital at City Point.
From a War-time photograph. |