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Chapter 16:

  • Around Petersburg
  • -- Beauregard's masterly defense -- Lee's army in place and Grant is foiled -- the attempt of Grant to blow up the fortifications -- battle of the crater -- the dreary trenches -- Reams' Station -- the Fort Harrison assault -- the cavalry.

After being foiled at Cold Harbor, General Grant determined to change his base to the south side of the James, and break the Confederate communications with the South. This plan had been previously proposed by McClellan, but rejected. Its danger to the Confederacy is shown by General Lee's assuring Richmond friends, some time before, that the people of that city might go to their beds without misgivings so long as the Federals assailed the capital from the north and east, and left undisturbed his communications with the Carolinas. Those sources of supply and reinforcement were now to be attempted.

From June 4th to 11th Grant's army was engaged in its mobilization on the banks of the Chickahominy. Wilson's well-organized cavalry corps and Warren's infantry corps were to threaten Richmond directly, and thus mask the movement on Petersburg. By midnight of the 16th of June, the army with all its artillery and trains was over the James. General Smith's corps was given the right of way over all other troops. On the 14th he reported to General Butler at Bermuda Hundred. Butler directed him to attack Petersburg at daylight. His corps was strengthened for the attack by the addition of Kautz‘ cavalry and Hinks' negro division. These additions gave Smith, according to General Humphreys, chief [263] of staff of the army of the Potomac, 16,100 men. Hancock's corps immediately followed Smith, and in his attack rendered him material assistance by relieving his men in the captured works.

At the opening of the assaults on Beauregard's works around Petersburg, thee men holding those works numbered only 5,400. These were gradually, by the arrival of Ransom's brigade and Hoke's division, and a few other troops, increased to 11,000 effectives. General Grant continually added to the two corps in front until, according to Colonel Roman's figures, at least 90,000 men were pressing daily against Beauregard. Colonel Roman says:

With such fearful and almost incredible odds against him, General Beauregard, from the 15th to the 18th of June, maintained a successful barrier to the Federal advance—a feat of war almost without a precedent, in which the courage and the endurance of the troops, no less than the skill with which the commander used his small resources, were fully as conspicuous as the good fortune that lent itself to such a result. Life of Beauregard, vol. II, p. 227.

General Badeau, in his military history of General Grant, offers this explanation of the failure of the great army to dispatch Beauregard: ‘Then, indeed, when all their exertions had proved fruitless, when, having out-marched and out-maneuvered Lee, the soldiers found themselves again obliged to assault intrenched positions —then they seemed in some degree to lose heart, and for the first time since the campaign began, their attacks were lacking in vigor.’

As Smith moved forward, on the 15th, his first opposition came from a slight redan and works held by Graham's battery and a small dismounted cavalry force under Dearing, ‘a young brigadier of high and daring spirit, and of much experience in war.’ Dearing made a resolute fight to delay Smith as long as possible, and then sullenly withdrew inside the main works. At this time General [264] Beauregard had only Wise's brigade, 2,400 strong, and Dearing's cavalry, within the lines. Smith's attack met a heavy loss, but carried the line of redans from No. 5 to No. 9. Had this attack been more vigorously pushed, Petersburg must have fallen.

On the 16th, Ransom's brigade arrived at Petersburg. Judge Roulhac in his Regimental History says: ‘After marching all night of the 15th, we reached Petersburg about 8 o'clock in the morning, and were hurried to our fortifications on Avery's farm. At a run we succeeded in getting to the works before the enemy reached them. Through a storm of shot and shell we gained them, just in time to meet their charge and drive them back. In the afternoon we were hurried to Swift creek, and with the Fifty-sixth North Carolina, under Maj. John W. Graham, and Gracie's brigade, drove back the Federal cavalry which had attempted to cut our communications with Richmond.’

Martin's and Clingman's brigades, of Hoke's division, also reached Petersburg on the 16th after forced marches, and were ready for their share of hard fighting on the 16th. From the extreme right of the Confederate line held by Wise, to the left held by Hoke, was about five miles, so the men in gray had an attenuated line in these works. The engineers estimated that 25,000 were necessary to properly man these works. General Beauregard's number on the morning of the 16th was, he states, 10,000 men of all arms. Hancock and Smith were joined by Burnside's corps about noon on the 16th, making an aggregate force of over 53,000 men. Warren's corps, 17,000 strong, reached Petersburg that night. Hancock, in command until General Meade's arrival, assaulted all along the front in the afternoon of the 16th, and the North Carolina brigades had a day of arduous battle. The artillery also had a day of incessant activity. After an afternoon of desperate struggling, Birney's division effected a lodgment The contest ended only with darkness. [265]

With the same disparity in numbers, another day of strife, attack and recoil, noise and bloodshed began on the 17th. At dawn, Potter carried a portion of the Confederate line, where the Federals found the exhausted Confederates asleep with their guns in their hands. Willcox's assault was, however, without success. Ledlie's attack was partly successful, but his losses were great and his success short, for he was driven out and many prisoners taken. At midnight, the lines were still in Confederate hands. But General Beauregard, not knowing that Longstreet's corps was near at hand, ordered withdrawal to a new and shorter line that his engineers had constructed. New fires were lighted along the old line, and the withdrawal was effected without Federal knowledge. The men at once fortified the new line, using bayonets, knives and even tin cans as dirt removers. On the 18th, Longstreet's advanced division got in place, and all assaults were repulsed with loss. These repeated assaults cost Grant's army 8,150 men. Grant learned, as McCabe aptly quotes, that Petersburg ‘could not be taken by the collar.’

With the coming of the rest of Lee's army, other North Carolina troops went into the trenches, as follows: Cooke's brigade, MacRae's brigade, Lane's brigade, Scales' brigade, and Williams' and Cummings' batteries. The four brigades in the valley were not recalled until the beginning of winter.

Then followed the dreary, suffering, starving months in the trenches around Petersburg. Soldiers have never been called upon to endure more than the Confederate soldiers were there forced to stand, and to stand with a full knowledge that their distant homes were being ruthlessly desolated, and that the pangs of hunger were pressing cruelly upon their unprotected families. What Captain Elliott says of Martin's North Carolina brigade was, changing only the numbers, true of every brigade that there lived in the ground, walked in the wet ditches, ate [266] in the ditches, slept in dirt-covered pits. He says: ‘At the beginning of the siege, June 20th, the report of Martin's brigade, occupying Colquitt's salient, showed 2,200 men for duty. In September, when they were relieved, the total force was 700 living skeletons. Occupying the sharp salient, the work was enfiladed on both flanks by direct fire, and the mortar shells came incessantly down from above. Every man was detailed every night, either on guard duty or to labor with pick and spade repairing works knocked down during the day. There was no shelter that summer from sun or rain. No food could be cooked there, but the scanty provisions were brought in bags on the shoulders of men from the cook yards some miles distant. The rations consisted of one pound of pork and three pounds of meal for three days—no coffee, no sugar, no vegetables, no tobacco, no grog —nothing but the bread and meat. No wonder that the list of officers was reduced to three captains and a few lieutenants, with but one staff officer (spared through God's mercy) to this brigade of 700 skeletons. But every feeble body contained an unbroken spirit, and after the fall months came, those who had not fallen into their graves or been disabled, returned to their colors, and saw them wave in victory in their last fight at Bentonville.’

Scarcely more than 100 yards from the salient held by Elliott's South Carolina brigade, which had Ransom's North Carolina brigade on its left, Burnside constructed a line of rifle-pits. Colonel Pleasants, a mining engineer, secured Burnside's approval of a plan to run a mine under the Elliott salient, blow it and its defenders in the air, attack by a heavy column in the confusion, and take the Confederate works. The mine was painstakingly excavated, charged with 8,000 pounds of powder, tamped with 8,000 sandbags, and on the 28th of July was ready to be sprung.

At that time, only the divisions of Hoke, Johnson and [267] Mahone were in the trenches. The mine was under Johnson's portion of the fortifications. Wise was on Elliott's right, Ransom's brigade under Colonel McAfee (Ransom being wounded) on his left. Hill's corps, and most of Longstreet's, had been sent north of the James to counteract Hancock and Sheridan, who were demonstrating against Richmond in order to draw Lee's forces from the trenches, and thus insure the success of the attack that was to follow the destruction and confusion wrought by the explosion of the mine.

All the siege and field artillery was to support the attack. Then, says McCabe, ‘Ledlie was to push through the breach straight for Cemetery hill. Willcox was to follow, and after passing the breach, deploy on the left and seize the Jerusalem plank road. Potter was to pass to the right and protect his flank, while Ferrero's negro division, should Ledlie effect a lodgment on Cemetery hill, was to push beyond that point and immediately assault the town.’

The Confederates had detected the mining and had thrown up intrenchments at the gorge of the salient and traversed their works.

At daylight on the 30th, the mine was fired. First a slight quake, then an erupted mass of earth, and a roar appalling followed. Next came a hail of stone, earth, wood, and mangled bodies, and a ragged chasm marked the place where the salient had stood. Two hundred and seventy-eight South Carolina officers and men, together with part of Pegram's battery, were mangled to death in the upheaval and subsidence. Then every gun on the Federal line opened, and an unenthusiastic line of Ledlie's division made unopposed headway toward the destroyed works. These men filed into the crater and filled it with a confused mass of disorganized troops. Their commander was not with them. The coming of a tangible enemy, however, aroused the Confederates, who had been thrown in consternation by the eruption. General [268] Elliott rushed to the breach, calling to his men to drive back the assailants. He was wounded, and Colonel McMaster took his brigade, sent to division commanders for reinforcements, and soon had his men firing into the excavation, or crater, where Ledlie's men huddled. This excavation was 135 feet in length, 97 broad, and 30 deep.1 Potter's, Willcox's and Ferrero's divisions of Burnside's corps pushed after Ledlie, and then Ord was directed to join in the effort to break through the lines.

Meanwhile, Haskell's guns had been rushed up at a gal. lop and began to open; Flanner's North Carolina battery from the Gee house, and Lamkins' mortars on Flanner's left. Wright's battery of Coit's battalion was also nobly served. These guns and a few regiments saved the day by repulsing all efforts to advance heavily from the crater. The shells bursting in the massed troops did great execution. Colonel McAfee sent the Twenty-first North Carolina regiment to McMaster, and this, with the Twenty-sixth South Carolina, formed in a ravine on the left and rear of the breach. The Twenty-fourth and Forty-ninth North Carolina regiments, also of Ransom's brigade, closed in on Elliott's brigade, continuing his line. These regiments in front and the two in rear met and drove back the charge along the trenches, says General Johnson. ‘Two companies of the Forty-ninth North Carolina, posted in the covered way near the main line, poured a heavy volley on the flank of the enemy in rear, and our men of the Seventeenth North Carolina and Forty-ninth Carolina. . . drove back the charge along the trenches.’

On the right, Wise's men joined Elliott in grim resistance. The Sixty-first North Carolina regiment, sent by General Hoke to reinforce the troops engaged at the breach, arrived at the same time with two brigades of Mahone's division. These reinforcements began to form in rear of Pegram's salient to charge the Federals [269] in the breach. While Mahone was still forming, the Federals advanced on him. ‘He,’ says General John. son, ‘met their advance by a charge, in which the Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth North Carolina regiments, and the Twenty-sixth and part of the Seventeenth South Carolina . . . gallantly joined, moving upon the left of General Mahone's line. The enemy was driven from three-quarters of the trench cavalier and most of the works on the left of the crater, with moderate loss to our forces.... During this time a large number of the enemy's troops, black and white, abandoned the breach and fled precipitately to the rear.’ Three separate attempts were made before the Union soldiers were entirely dislodged. This charge, which General Johnson says gave him entire possession of the crater and adjacent lines, was made by Sanders' brigade, of Mahone's division, and by the Sixty-first North Carolina, Colonel Radcliffe, and the Seventeenth South Carolina.2 Ransom's front had been more than once assailed during the day, but no success attended such assaults. The only result of this novel warfare undertaken by General Burnside was the loss of 3,500 lives on the Federal side.

On the 16th of August, Hancock's corps being engaged in a demonstration in force to prevent aid going to Early, Birney took a part of the Confederate line at Fussell's mill. Lane's brigade, led by Colonel Barbour (General Lane absent, wounded), recaptured the intrenchments on the Darbytown road, in the presence of General Lee. General Clingman's brigade took part in Mahone's and Heth's attack on Warren's corps on the 19th. In this engagement, General Clingman was so seriously wounded that he was never again able to join his brigade.

Hancock's corps marched for the Weldon railroad on the 22d of August That officer was to destroy the road to Rowanty creek. His force consisted of his first division, commanded by General Miles, his second division, under [270] General Gibbon, and Gregg's cavalry. By the 24th, Hancock had destroyed the road nearly to Reams' Station. This road was vital to the comfort of the Confederates. So A. P. Hill was directed to stop its destruction.

Hill took with him the North Carolina brigades of Scales, Lane, Cooke, MacRae, and in addition, McGowan's and Anderson's brigades, and two of Mahone's. On Hill's approach, Hancock formed behind some old intrenchments constructed in June. General Gibbon was posted in the left half of these, and General Miles occupied the right half. Gregg's force was on the flank, and seems to have been partly dismounted and intrenched.

The first attack of Hill, about 2 o'clock, seems to have been made only by the brigades of McGowan and Scales. They were repulsed. At 5 o'clock, General Hill sent forward three North Carolina brigades, Cooke's, Lane's (under General Conner) and MacRae's, to make a second attempt. Captain Graham in his Regimental History states that the combined strength of the three brigades was only 1,750. These brigades dashed forward with great spirit upon Miles' line. Miles' men made, in part, a good resistance. They were, however, forced to give way in confusion. General Cooke stated that the first colors planted on the captured works were those of the Twenty-seventh North Carolina in the hands of Sergt. Roscoe Richards. Gibbon's division was ordered to retake the works, but failed signally. Hampton, dis. mounting his men, attacked on the left and forced Gregg's cavalry back to a new line that Hancock established.

This was one of the most brilliant events toward the close of that gloomy summer. General Hill's loss in killed and wounded was 720. He captured 12 stand of colors, 9 guns, and 3,100 stand of arms. General Lee, in a letter to Governor Vance, dated August 29th, writes: ‘I have been frequently called upon to mention the services of North Carolina troops in this army, but their gallantry and conduct were never more deserving of admiration [271] than in the engagement at Reams' Station on the 25th instant. The brigades of Cooke, MacRae and Lane, the last under the temporary command of General Conner, advanced. . . and carried the enemy's works with a steady courage that elicited the warm commendation of their corps and division commanders, and the admiration of the army.’

On the 30th of September, Clingman's brigade was engaged in the desperate attempt to recapture Fort Harrison, and lost in that unfortunate assault more men than it had lost in weeks in the trenches.

Lane's and MacRae's brigades formed a part of A. P. Hill's force in his attack on Warren at Jones' farm on September 30th. There Major Wooten's skirmish line greatly distinguished itself, and the two brigades made many captures. On the 9th, Hoke and Field, supported by Lane and Gary's cavalry, dispersed a large cavalry force under Kautz and captured all his guns.

In all the movements around Petersburg, the cavalry under Hampton and Dearing, both full of fight and dash, was untiringly engaged. Many changes had occurred in the old North Carolina brigade. Gen. Rufus Barringer commanded the brigade, Colonel Cheek the First regiment, Col. W. P. Roberts the Second, Colonel Baker (until his capture) the Third, Maj. J. H. McNeill the Fifth. Dearing's independent brigade included the Fourth under Colonel Ferebee, and the Sixteenth battalion under Lieut.-Col. J. T. Kennedy.

The brigade of Barringer was engaged at Fisher's, White Oak swamp and White's tavern. At White Oak swamp, after General Chambliss was killed, Gen. W. H. F. Lee formed a new line with the First and Second regiments and made good his battle. On the 21st of August, all four of Barringer's regiments were engaged with Mahone on the Weldon road. After a preliminary success, the cavalry was forced to follow the retirement of the infantry. [272]

At Reams' Station, Gen. W. H. F. Lee was about sick and General Barringer commanded his division, Col. W. H. Cheek commanding Barringer's brigade. The whole command was actively engaged, and materially aided in the victory gained. At McDowell Junction, on the 27th of September, at Jones' farm, Gravelly run and Hargrove's house, the brigade was engaged with varying success, but with continuous pugnacity.

In November Hampton made his ‘cattle raid,’ and dashing in at Grant's depot, City Point, drove off over 2,000 head of cattle. This raid was admirably planned and as admirably executed. On the return the North Carolina brigade had a brisk rear-guard action at Belcher's mill.

On the 8th of December, when the North Carolina Senior and Junior reserves so admirably defended the Weldon railroad bridge near Belfield, the pursuit was conducted by General Barringer, and he states that two squadrons of the First regiment, commanded by Captain Dewey, made a splendid mounted charge. General Bar-ringer puts the losses in his brigade for this campaign as follows: Killed, 99; wounded, 378; missing and captured, 127; total, 604. [273]

1 Johnson's Report.

2 Johnson's Report.

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