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Chapter 19: the capture of Petersburg by 6th Corps

The 31st of March was spent by the 121st on the skirmish line, and on its return to camp, orders were received to hold itself in readiness for moving at a moment's notice. On the 1st of April firing was heard off to the left, and it was rumored that the 5th Corps had already begun the anticipated attack upon the enemy's works.

At 10 o'clock of April 1st the 6th Corps, under orders to leave all unnecessary accoutrements under guard in camp, and to move as quietly as possible in light marching order, moved quietly out of camp and formed in column of assault in the rear of our picket line. This was done so silently, as not to be detected by the pickets of the enemy. The position occupied by the corps was the one captured on the afternoon of the 25th of March, behind the picket line then formed, not more than two hundred yards from the works of the enemy. A fierce artillery fire had been opened along the whole line to cover the point of attack, and the roar of the cannon from both sides, and the flight of the shells distinguished by their burning fuses made the night one long to be remembered by those who saw and heard the grand duel of the artillery. The time set for the assault was 4 A. M., but on account of the darkness and fog the order was not given till 4:45.

Colonel Olcott's report gives the part of the 121st in it: “The brigade being in two lines, the 121st New York was on the right of the second [209] line. When the order to advance was given, the regiment moved rapidly forward, maintaining a good line till within about 200 yards of the enemy's works when the second line was moved a short distance to the left and then forward again. This together with the darkness and the character of the ground, divided the regiment somewhat. Most of the men with the colors entered the works farther to the right than intended and captured two guns. One of these was immediately turned upon the enemy, loaded and fired by Sergeant Redfield M. Dustin, Company F. Sergeant Dustin served for nearly two years in the 1st Massachusetts Battery, and is a skillful artillerist. These guns were carried off and receipt obtained for them. The portion of the regiment engaged in taking the guns mentioned, with a part of the 95th Pennsylvania, 2d Connecticut and 95th New York advanced along the enemy's works for nearly a mile, capturing all the artillery in them and holding the works until ordered to join the part of the regiment to the left. The regiment in this charge captured about two hundred prisoners.”

The more circumstantial account of this affair given by Colonel Beckwith, is as follows: “About midnight we moved out of camp and marched to Fort Fisher, near the lookout tower, and moved out of the works. The strictest silence was enjoined. As we approached the line taken by us on the 25th of March, we formed in line of battle in rear of the 2d Connecticut and had scarcely gotten into position when we were ordered to lie down. At the same time the pickets began firing, as we supposed, to cover the noise of our forming, and we were treated to the sensation of lying upon a field for a long time exposed to the fire of the enemy's skirmishers without any shelter. Every once in a while some one would get hit with a ball, [210] and we could hear his cry of anguish as the lead tore through. Finally our men, by stopping their fire and crying, ‘April Fool, Johnnies,’ restored quiet, and for a long time we lay perfectly quiet, waiting for the time to come when we could move forward. The night was cold and damp and we were chilled and numb. There was some firing away to our right but not more than usual. Word was passed along, that when the battery opened at Fort Fisher it was the signal to charge. We were to advance without further orders and as silently as possible. It seemed to me as though that battery would never open. Anson Ryder, who lay beside me, said ‘I would rather charge than lie here in this suspense and misery.’ As the first gray dawn began to show, out belched the guns, and we could mark the course of the shells as their fuse left a dim spark passing to the Rebel works. We were up in another moment, in closed ranks, feeling for the man on our right we plunged forward in the darkness. In another instant the Reb skirmishers delivered their fire and their battery in our front opened. Almost its first shot cut Jimmie Hendricks of Company A in two. A little farther on, and the Rebel works were marked by the jets of flame from their rifles as they fired upon us. Another instant and we were up to their abatis, and we got into a tangle looking for a place to get through. Finally some fellow to our left sang out, ‘Here's a road,’ and a lot of us made for it and followed it on a run to the Rebel works at that point a fort. Climbing up the sides, it being now light enough to see a few paces ahead, I went in through the embrasure of the guns, one of which had been firing on us. The Johnnies had run back among the huts and were firing back at us. We ran down toward them and they ran back into the field. Quite a number hid in the huts, and our [211] fellows hunted them out. Afterwards a lot of us fellows charged over the field to the road, and fired into the running Rebs, and also into some wagons which were passing. We also twisted off the telegraph wires with our bayonets, continuing our firing at everything in sight. The Johnnies made it too hot for us in the road, as there were but a few of us, and so we went back to the house where a good many of our men had gathered and from which we were directed to move to the right along the enemy's lines. This we did for a long distance without much opposition, until we came to a fort, which commanded and enfiladed the line on which we were advancing. Our advance was checked until a division of the 24th Corps came up from the direction we had come, and word was passed along for the 2d Brigade men to move back and assemble, which we did. Getting back to Fort Fisher we found the balance of the regiment and the brigade. Some of the regiment had gone to the left when they got into the works. The friendly darkness had destroyed the Rebels' aim, and by reason of it many a man's life had been spared, but we had lost enough. Anse Ryder had been hit in the leg near the thigh, Robinson had lost one arm, Frank Lowe had been hit, and a number of others, I do not now recall. We had taken a lot of Johnnies prisoners, had killed and wounded some, and taken their guns; but we did not stop to bother with them — just told them to get to the rear and hunt up the provost marshal, which they were apparently very glad to do, and without escort at that. We dumped the brass guns over the fort and ran them towards our line to guard against accident. The wounded were carried back to the hospital near the observatory where we found Anse Ryder. Doctor Slocum said it would kill him to amputate his leg, and that he would [212] die if it was not done, and Anse wanted to die with it on; so the doctor fixed him up and sent him to the hospital, and he is living to-day with the Rebel bullet and the bone of his leg cemented together like old friends.”

“The brigade as soon as assembled was ordered to the right to support a portion of the 9th Corps. In this movement it passed by its camp, but was not permitted to stop for the accoutrements left there, but was hurried on to the vicinity of Fort Sedgwick and passing through entered the first line of the enemy's works that had been captured by the men of the 9th Corps, but they had there been checked. Many of the dead and wounded were still in these works, and it was by no means a pleasant duty to occupy them the rest of the day and during the night, until 3 o'clock, when the brigade was formed in skirmish order and advanced on Petersburg. It thus happened that the 2d Brigade of the 1st Division of the 6th Corps was the first organization of the army of the Potomac to enter the city of Petersburg, and unfurl its flag on a public building there. About the same time an officer of another corps had ridden in and placed a flag on another building, but he was not accompanied by a body of troops. It was with him an individual adventure, but our flag was raised in the regular course of official service.”

Our flag was unfurled on the Court House, the other on the Post Office. Beckwith continues: “We secured a lot of Confederate currency and postage stamps, and routed out a lot of stragglers and sneaks, hid about the city. At the Commissary we secured some nice hams and some apple jack that was quite smooth, and under its softening influence we forgave a good many of our foes. Some of the women, whose houses we entered, to get the Johnnies the darkies told us were [213] hidden there, gave us a startling exhibition of their ability to blackguard us. About noon we were in line again and on our way to our old camp. Passing along through the city we saw President Lincoln and General Grant, and gave them a marching salute. Soon reaching camp, we slung our traps, and the same night reached our division fagged out, but ready to push on after Lee's broken columns. On the morning of the third we were on the road from Petersburg to Burkesville. Our progress was not very rapid and we saw but little evidence of Lee's retreat. During the day we heard firing in our front but as we advanced it seemed to recede. After a ten-mile march we went into camp by the roadside near an old church.”

The 4th and 5th of April were passed in marching, sometimes slowly, at other times passing along rapidly as if to meet an emergency, and all along were evidences of the disorganized condition of a large portion of the enemy and the straits he was in. But General Longstreet's corps, which had occupied the works north of the James River, and therefore had not been engaged in the previous disastrous battles, had come up and now formed the rear guard of the fleeing army. His troops were still capable of strenuous resistance and maintained a bold front against attacks of cavalry and infantry. General A. P. Hill had been killed and his corps assigned to the two other corps making the corps of Longstreet and Ewell by no means insignificant bodies of troops. Ewell had the advance, and Longstreet brought up the rear. Ewell's corps was the one that suffered the most, because it was Grant's purpose to cut off the retreat of Lee and compel a surrender. The 2d and 6th Corps up to this point had been following the rear of the retreating Confederates. General Sheridan [214] had asked for the 6th Corps to be sent to him at Five Forks, but the 5th was nearer, and was sent instead.

Lee's intention was to take his army to Danville, to which place Davis had removed the Capital of the Confederacy, and he was expecting to retain the control of the railroad to that point. But at Jettersville, a station on the railroad, he found that Sheridan had anticipated him. Quite a severe battle was fought at Jettersville in which the Rebels were defeated, and were compelled to turn the head of their column toward Appomattox. Of the next day's march Beckwith says,

On the morning of the 6th we marched at 6 o'clock in rear of our 2d Division, and in the expectation of hearing musketry firing break out in our front at any moment. For several miles we moved through the woods over a very rough country, crossing deep ravines, and streams through swampy bottoms and dense thickets, but did not find the enemy. About 10 o'clock we moved out to the road. We followed our 3d Division by way of Jettersville toward Deatonville. Everything and everybody now seemed to be in a hurry. Everything on wheels was halted in the open places except the artillery and ambulances, which were making desperate efforts to keep up with the infantry, and it became evident to us that at the rate we are going we should soon catch up with the enemy. Crossing Flat Creek we kept on with our rapid march, the sound of musketry and artillery increasing in our front. Finally coming to an open place we could see a road in our front crossing the road upon which we were marching, and we were told that it was the road along which the enemy was retreating, and that our cavalry had overtaken them and captured a portion of their wagon train and many prisoners, and that we were [215] close to Lee's infantry. As we came out of the woods into the open field that stretched down to Sailor's Creek, we could see the troops in our front, the 3d Division, deploying in line of battle to the right of the road and moving forward. Beyond on the opposite hillside we could see across the valley about a mile away, the enemy's line of battle formed and awaiting our attack. We instantly realized the work we had to do, and a tough job it looked to be. Rushing along we were soon in line of battle, with the 37th Massachusetts on our right and across the road along which we had come. The troops on our left had deployed first and we had to run to get into line with them, but we were on good ground and got along all right until we came into the vicinity of the creek and into the range of the enemy's fire, which now was rapid and heavy, but on account of the conformity of the ground not very destructive. Here after halting for a short time to reform we were ordered to charge, and drive the enemy from their works. Forward on a run we went as rapidly as the steep hill would permit, and in a moment we were up to, and over their slight earthworks, the occupants offering no further resistance, after emptying their guns in our faces. On our right the 37th Massachusetts did not get on as well. They were more exposed, had a farther distance to go and suffered very heavily. Colonel Olcott, finding the ground in front of him clear and the enemy holding on to the works on the right, half wheeled the 121st to the right and moved lengthwise and partly in the rear of the enemy's line and they immediately abandoned their works and surrendered. These last troops we encountered were Marines, or land sailors, and had never before been in battle. They were mostly boys and were commanded by G. W. Custis Lee who fell into our hands with a [216] large number of prisoners and several stands of colors. One of these was a beautiful silk banner belonging to the 8th Savannah Guards, whose organization dated back to 1804. This was captured by H. S. Hawthorne of Company F and by him turned over to Colonel Olcott. The inscription on this flag was as follows:

“To the Defenders of Our Altars and Our Hearths. Presented by the Ladies of Savannah, Ga., to the Eighth Savannah Guards.”

This indicates how complete was the misconception at that time on the part of its donors, of the objects and purposes of the Union Army. It indicates that they regarded us as marauders, with no high or patriotic purpose, but bent upon the destruction of the sacred things of the family fireside. Our captures numbered at least 500, and our little regiment had again covered itself with glory. Our losses had again been very severe and left a great gap in our already thinned ranks. Our captain, TenEyck Howland, than whom no more intrepid soldier ever faced a foe, had fallen dead into the arms of his men, his heart pierced by a musket ball. Lieut. Tracy Morton had also been killed. My friend, Jimmie Norris, had suffered a like fate. The total casualties were two officers and seven enlisted men killed, and one officer and twelve enlisted men wounded, nearly one-fifth of those who entered the battle. After the battle we assembled on the top of the hill up which we had charged and stacked our arms in the open field, just outside of the woods. Here we built fires and some of us took off and wrung out our wet and muddy pantaloons. It was dark and we did not expect to move again until daylight. But I had just got ready to cook my supper, and had my pantaloons drying by the fire when a mounted officer rode up and enquired for Colonel Olcott. He not being present at the moment, Major Cronkite [217] announced his presence, and as being in command of the regiment during Olcott's absence, the officer ordered the regiment to be moved to the right following the 65th New York loud enough to be heard. I said to Lume Baldwin who was at the fire with me, “Did you hear that?” He said “Yes.” “Well,” I said, “I am not going any farther to-night, at least until I get my breeches dry, and something to eat. They will only move a little way to form a line and spend half the night to do it. We can catch them in the morning in a little while.” So I ran over to the stacks that were about fifty yards away, and feeling among the guns, found mine and took it out to take back to the fire. As I did so Major Cronkite had called for his horse, mounted and ridden around in front of the stacks and ordered, “Fall in.” Just then there was a flash and a report to my right, and a cry from Major Cronkite that he was shot. Instantly men ran towards and surrounded him, and it was learned that he was seriously wounded, his leg afterwards having to be amputated. It was a very lamentable occurrence. Major Cronkite had borne a conspicuous part in the regiment, and was a gallant and skillful soldier, and this terrible accident to him was deeply regretted by all the men of the regiment. The accident was explained by the supposition that some man in taking his gun from a stack had knocked it down and one of the guns had been discharged inflicting the wound upon the Major.

The report of Colonel Olcott of this battle is essentially the same as the account given by Comrade Beckwith, except that he was given command of the first line consisting of the 121st New York and the 95th Pennsylvania, leaving Major Cronkite in command of the regiment. He also states that an effort of the enemy was made to get into the rear of the brigade, which was defeated by the [218] second charge of the 121st. Longstreet's account of the battle verifies this statement. He says: “Anderson crossed Sailor's Creek, closely followed by Ewell. As Anderson marched he found Merritt's cavalry square across his route. Humphreys, who was close upon Ewell, waited for the arrival of the 6th Corps. Ewell deployed his divisions, Kershaw on the right, G. W. C. Lee on the left. Their plan was that Anderson should attack and open the way while Ewell defended the rear. As Anderson attacked, Wright's corps came up. Humphreys had matured his plan, and the attack of Anderson hastened that of the enemy upon the Confederate rear. Anderson had some success at first, and Ewell received the assaults with resolute coolness, and at one moment pushed his fight to aggressive return, but the enemy, finding that there was no artillery with the Confederates, dashed their batteries into closer range, putting in artillery and infantry fire, front and flank, until the Confederate rear was crushed to fragments. General Ewell surrendered, as did also General G. W. C. Lee. General Kershaw advised such of his men as could to make their escape, and surrendered with his division. General Anderson got away with the greater part of B. R. Johnson's division and Pickett with 600 men. Generals Corse and Hunton and others of Pickett's division men were captured. About 200 of Kershaw's men got away.”

General Lee being informed of this disaster rode back, with a portion of Mahone's division and when he saw the confusion of the retreating Confederates, he exclaimed, “My God, has my army dissolved?”

The effort of Ewell to push “his fight to an aggressive return” was the fierce attack on the 37th Massachusetts, which was defeated by the flank attack of the 121st, by the right half wheel under the direction of Colonel Olcott.

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