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Chapter 14: from Cold Harbor to Petersburg

It is generally conceded that General Grant's purpose in the movement from Cold Harbor was not anticipated by General Lee. All his other movements had been accurately divined so that he was able to get to the position most advantageous to him before the advance of the Union army had reached it in sufficient force to hold it. This movement to the James River seems to have left Lee in perplexity as to where the Army of the Potomac was, and where it was going. The part which the 121st took in it, is of interest to us. The regiment, reduced by deaths, wounds and sickness, now numbered about one hundred men of the healthiest and hardiest of its members. But in the marches that followed these were tested to the utmost. The way was through a low and swampy country, the weather was exceedingly hot, the water was poor, and the roads thick with dust. To the brigade was assigned the duty of protecting the artillery trains. This made us the rear guard of the corps and the march was made with flankers thrown out on both sides to guard against any possible attack from either flank. The march continued steadily till the 15th when the James River was reached at Wilson's Wharf. The brigade formed a line guarding the position on the river until the 17th when it was transferred by boats to Bermuda Hundred. Beckwith says, “Here we saw the first colored troops. Some of us going out after something to eat, found the roads picketed [163] by colored cavalry men, who good naturedly took our chaffing.”

The brigade disembarked at Point of Rocks and marched thence to Bermuda Hundred. We found that our Third division had already preceded us and were massed ready for rapid movement. Instantly a report was circulated that we were to assault in front of Butler's lines and take and hold the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad. We found the line occupied by Butler, elaborately fortified-covered ways and bombproofs for the protection of the men, redoubts and forts covered with mantlets covering the embrasures, and rapid fire guns in battery, the first of the kind we had seen, as well as many brass and rifled cannon. The place looked formidable. The lines were manned by Ohio State Militia, enlisted for 100 days. They were heartily sick of the job, and told us that they had not enlisted for fighting at the front, but to guard points held by old troops, so that the old troops could be sent to the point of danger. They told us that they were ordered to sleep in the bombproofs. Of course our talk with them did not improve our feelings. Many of our men were prejudiced against Butler, and thought it unjust for us to do his fighting for him, and that it wouldn't hurt the Ohio Militia to get a little touch of war. After dark we were moved out in front and formed in column, our brigade being on the right. The Johnnies drove in Butler's pickets, and General Foster who commanded in our vicinity called for help, and Ricket's division was sent to his assistance, but the attempt to retake the position was postponed, it was reported, until we had formed. Then a rush was to be made to seize and hold the railroad. As we after dark moved out to form in rear of the skirmishers, the militia stood by the side of the road which we passed out [164] upon, and we envied them their good fortune. Hour after hour passed away after we had formed. We could hear the sound of axes and the falling of timber in our front, the passing of railroad trains, and all indicating the arrival of troops, and we knew that we had a tough job before us. Just before daylight orders to charge were countermanded; and we returned inside the fortifications, pleased that we were not going blindly into the crash of battle, without knowing anything of our position. Afterward we learned that the Johnnies had evacuated their works in front of Bermuda Hundred, on the Bermuda Neck. When our men discovered that fact they advanced and took possession of them, and also went out and took possession of, and for some distance, tore up the R. and P. Railroad, and the advance line occupied the Rebel works. But in the evening Longstreet's men came up and promptly attacked the feeble force holding the works and drove it out, and instantly set to work to repair the mischief inflicted upon them. We should have occupied their works immediately upon our arrival, and awaited their attack upon us in them. After they had recovered the position and retaken their works, to attack would have been to assail strong fortifications manned by veteran troops with the same result as before. The line of assault had been formed with General Terry's troops in advance, our Second division supporting him and the Second brigade on the right to act as a flanking column.

As we marched out in rear of the works a sutler had just come in from the landing with some supplies, and although we had little money we began purchasing his wares. None of the men in the camp were awake and about, and after several deals not satisfactory to him, the sutler said he [165] would not sell any more goods, they were for the men of the regiment of which he was sutler. This did not suit some of our people, and in a moment each man who could get into the shanty was acting as clerk for himself, and it took but a few moments to clean out the whole outfit. The sutler begged to be left a comb to comb his hair with, but I doubt if his petition was granted. I secured some hot pies and some canned goods. An effort was made by some officers to discover who had perpetrated this outrage, as it was called, but without any success.

We remained at Bermuda Hundred waiting an order to attack. It was reported on the 18th that General Wright and General Butler had quarreled, but it had no influence upon our movements.

On the morning of the 19th we crossed the river and marched to the Petersburg front, to the vicinity of the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, which position we occupied, relieving some of General Martindale's division of the Eighteenth Corps. At daylight on the 20th firing began on our front, and a battery just to our right kept up a continuous fire. Shortly after sunrise a Rebel picket came into our lines. He had a number of canteens and seemed to be confused and lost, and was greatly surprised when he jumped over the works.

During the day of the 20th a Rebel mortar battery opened upon us, and for a little while made it very lively for us. Where we were posted the railroad had been torn up, the ties used to face the inside of the breastworks with a tie standing on end against the facing and another placed bracing the upright tie to hold all in place. The third mortar shell fired, I discovered, was coming into the works and I shouted “look out, it is coming right into the works.” There was a [166] scampering to get out of the way by the men who were crowded around Hank King and Ben Jones who were issuing a cooked ration. The shell dropped close beside a sergeant of Company F who lay with his back against the breastwork and his legs sprawled out, fast asleep, unconscious of the danger. I jumped behind the upright tie and crowded myself into as small a space as possible, and glanced around. I saw the shell sizzing away, and the men about it and the sergeant asleep. It seemed as though it would never burst, as though it were spellbound. Finally it went off and the sergeant was badly hurt, being hit by many of the balls it contained. Ben Jones also received a wound in the seat of his pants, and it spoiled our rations which were upset by the rush to cover. The Rebs continued their mortar practice for some time longer, but did us no more mischief. Several men were hit by sharpshooters during the day, among them Captain Mather, a rifle ball passing through his head, inflicting a serious but not fatal wound. A large body of colored infantry passed by us going toward our right. They had been relieved by our troops. Some of them had been in battle the previous day and had lost considerably. As they passed by us, they kept up a running fire of talk. One old fellow had his pants torn and I asked him how it was done. “Oh, dere's war I got picked wid a piece ob shell.”

On the night of the 21st we were relieved by some troops of the Eighteenth Corps, and marched to the left of the army, taking position on the left of the Second Corps, in the thick woods covering the country. Just at evening we advanced a considerable distance to the front of our entrenchments, and finally began to get careless, thinking as we had gone so far, the Rebs had left our front. Coming to a large tree that had blown down, its [167] roots with a large mass of earth attached formed a shield, reaching considerably above our heads, the trunk lying from us and obstructing the road. Lume and I passed to the right, and Barr with the 96th drummer to the left. I had scarcely got around when I saw a Reb on a horse with his carbine leveled at me. Instinctively I crouched and shrunk myself together as he fired and missed me. I was so rattled when I fired that I missed him as he galloped away, the drummer on the mule in pursuit. The Reb vidette, for such he was, had dropped his Mississippi carbine as he fled. We rushed forward and in a hundred yards more came to the edge of the timber, and before us was a field of grain in which were picketed some Rebel cavalry, upon whom we opened fire. The way they hustled and got onto their horses, and galloped away was lively. We had fired but a few rounds when Colonel Lessig and his adjutant rode up and forcibly ordered us to cease firing, and fall back. This we did without any loss, except it was claimed that a man named Cotten was left behind, or taken prisoner. We reached our lines without other loss, bringing the vidette's carbine with us. I shuddered afterwards when I remembered the scare that Johnnie gave me. He was probably nervous because we were on both sides of him, and that affected his aim.

Returning to camp we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We had a hard task to get water. We had to dig wells or trenches quite deep in the clay into which the water would percolate very slowly, but by digging a good many holes we managed to get a sufficient supply, of a milky color. The weather was beastly hot. The 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery was camped on our right and its regimental headquarters were back in the pines. We had cut down a wide strip [168] of pines in the rear of our works, and our shelters were in this opening. A guard patrolled up and down in front of the camp of the 2d Connecticut. As I lay in my tent I heard a groaning and discovered that it came from one of their men who was tied up by his thumbs to a pine tree. The poor devil was in awful agony and just ready to collapse. I stood it as long as I could and then said to one of our fellows, “I am going to cut him down.” He said, “You had better not,” but I took out my knife and getting as close to him as I could without attracting attention, when the guard's back was to me I ran up and cutting his cords said, “run for the woods,” but the man just sank down in his tracks, as I bounded away to my tent for shelter. That caper cost me the corporal's stripes I wore, and some extra picket duty. I sometimes think one of the fellows told who did it, but was never certain. For a number of days we were idle, but on the 29th of June we moved out to Ream's Station to help out Wilson's cavalry, who had been out on a raid, and had been cut off by Hampton, Lee, and some of Pickett's troops. We did not meet the enemy, but some of Wilson's men came to our lines, and we learned from them, that he had been badly used up and many of his men and guns captured.

On the 30th we returned to our old camp on the Jerusalem plank road, from which we returned on the 2d of July to the position on the left of the 2d Corps. Our sutler, Sam Miller, came to us here and we rapidly filled up with the stock he brought, among which was some alleged Herkimer County butter and cheese, the former in tin cans was melted and the latter soon developed skippers.

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