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Chapter 26:

The spring of the year 1864 opened with a change of leader of the Federal forces in Virginia. On March 10, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was commissioned lieutenant-general and given supreme command. After many mistakes, the North had at last found a man with ‘qualifications.’ The battlefield had shown that the North had made sure of a man of strength; a man who held that maneuvering paralyzed hard fighting, and had little faith in it—yet withal one who, if never a great strategist, was a trained and educated soldier and knew how to lift up Thor's hammer, and use it weightily upon his foe. On this side of the Potomac there had been not a whisper for a change in commanders. From the battle of Seven Pines the South had rested, with a serene confidence which may well be called sublime, upon one as lofty in life as he was superior in those arts which make a great leader. Robert E. Lee had for three years kept Richmond free from the invader. To none save him, throughout the whole embattled Confederacy, did Richmond in her peril look for succor.

In the conduct of the war, now reopening with the spring, the two commanders were for the first time brought face to face. Neither had known the other in the hurly-burly of battle. From the West one had come; defending the South, the other had remained. Each was of the choicest military fruitage of his section, If the West [271] was rude, its rudeness had come of its strength. If the South was courtly, in its courtliness lay that strength which was the germ of generations. Such were the men. Equally mated in knowledge, these men were, when tested, to prove how skill overlaps knowledge and numbers both.

McClellan had made his attack on Richmond from the sea. Grant was resolved to make his main approach by land—taking the precaution, as a compromise, of sending Butler, with the army of the James, to move in support up the James river. With himself, however, the ‘On to Richmond’ was the idlest of cries. From first to last his own object was Lee's army. That army once crushed, Richmond must of necessity fall, and with Richmond, the Confederacy. Grant believed in giving hard blows and plenty of them. In hammering away at the army, his creed was to keep on hammering until nothing was left on the anvil. To do this kind of work needs men and guns. These the North lavished upon him with full hands. At the opening of the Wilderness campaign (May 4th), the odds were 120,000 men against 60,000; 200 guns against 350.

On May 4th Grant opened his campaign by attempting to turn the Confederate right. The new movement through the scrub oaks of the old Wilderness was foiled. Strategy for once proved too much for hard hitting. This was an ugly surprise for Grant, unused to checks. Giving himself no rest, however, the great Hammer of the North struck again and again, seasoning his blows with a little maneuvering. From May 4th to May 8th he learned the metal of our army in Virginia. From May 8th to 19th he wasted nearly two weeks and thousands of men in looking for a weak spot in Lee's army. Lee, meeting him at all points, exposed no weak spot. From out the checks and disappointments of Spottsylvania Court House, among which was the death of the gallant Sedgwick, sprang that grim vaunt, ‘I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.’ [272]

Grant came South through the gloomy Wilderness which, one year before, had so nearly stranded the army of the Potomac. Lee stretched no hand to stop Grant's crossing the Rapidan; he was bent on striking once for the sake of those dreary woods of fortunate Confederate memory. Ewell's corps on the morning of the 5th called a halt to Warren's Federal corps advancing on the Orange turnpike. Though Sedgwick came up to help in the assaults upon the Confederate line, Ewell held fast all day, one corps against two, and blocked the road. Both of the Louisiana brigades were hotly engaged, and they bore their share of the losses. In a counter-attack by his and the Stonewall brigade, toward dusk, the heroic Stafford fell mortally wounded. Afterward, in sorrowfully recounting his loss of 3 generals killed, 4 wounded and 2 captured, Ewell remarked: ‘Gen. Edward Johnson once said of General Stafford that he was the bravest man he ever saw. Such a compliment from one himself brave, brave almost to a fault, and habitually sparing of praise, needs no remark.’

Next day the fighting continued along Ewell's line, the enemy aggressive, trying to find his flank. In the evening Gordon went forward, Hays moving partly out of the works to connect, and took a mile of the Federal works. While marching to Spottsylvania Court House on the 8th, orders were received transferring Hays' brigade to Johnson's division, and consolidating both Louisiana brigades under General Hays. But the gallant Hays was not long to have this honor. On the next day, in line at Spottsylvania, he was severely wounded and compelled to leave the field. Unfitted for further battle service, he was transferred to the Trans-Mississippi to bring new men into the army.

On May 12th Hancock, superb fighter steadied by danger, broke through a part of our line, enveloping the salient held by Edward Johnson, and capturing Johnson and Steuart and 2,000 of the division, including many of the [273] battle-worn Louisiana brigade. But on the second line Hancock was checked and partly driven back. It was a day of fierce fighting on both sides. In this single battle Grant lost 8,000 men. For the short campaign filled with charges and blood his loss was 37,000. In killed and wounded, as well as captured, the Louisiana troops lost heavily. Among the killed was the gallant Col. John M. Williams, of the Second regiment, distinguished as the successor of General Nicholls at Chancellorsville; Captain Rice, of the Montgomery Guards, First Louisiana, was grievously wounded and left for dead on the field.

Grant renewed his pounding on the 18th, and on the 19th Ewell, making a long detour, fell on the Federal right, but found the enemy prepared, and lost nearly 1,000 of his 6,000 men. Next day the remnant of Edward Johnson's division, in which the Louisianians still maintained the forms of their brigade organizations, was coupled with John B. Gordon's brigade to form a division afterward led by that gallant Georgian.

With Thor's hammer; with his tremendous preponderance in men and guns; with all that capacity at will to push a corps against a regiment, Grant was from day to day growing in knowledge of the power which lay in the military genius of R. E. Lee. During all his Wilderness fights he had accomplished nothing but attrition. Tough was the grain of the army of Northern Virginia—as tough as its mighty heart was sound. That army had heard of Grant and what the West knew of him. It was rather disposed unjustly to underrate his strength of resolution, and to make light of those marked staying qualities of his, which were such potential aids to his army's fighting strength. Grant knew how to fight, to give and to take blows. What is more, he knew how to stay in the fight when once begun. An army easily trusts such a captain as this.

Never did Lee manifest in so conclusive a manner his gift of prevision as in foreseeing Grant's plans, and in [274] meeting his movements with his entire army whenever the threatened attack was on, during the marching and maneuvering which intervened between Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor.

On June 2d Grant ordered an assault along the whole Confederate line for 3:30 a. m. next day. Lee behind his intrenchments waited, unmoved, the avalanche. Out of the grayness of the early morning of June 3d it came with 80,000 men—and fell back in bloody repulse. The awful slaughter was over in scarcely more than ten minutes. Ten thousand Federals had fallen. Our loss, though heavy, was a mere fraction of that number. To have won at Cold Harbor called from Grant a master plan; a plan strong at least as that which opposed it; a plan which should have combined in equal shares, daring with skill, skill with caution, caution with numbers wisely and prudently used.

Concurrently with his advance from the North Grant had ordered Butler forward up the James toward Richmond. At Drewry's Bluff, where Beauregard, with a hastily collected army, met the enemy, the Washington artillery was privileged to fight against the former commander at New Orleans. Eshleman was still in command of the battalion, his valor rewarded with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. On the right of the line, May 15th, a section of the artillery was thrown forward with Johnson and Hagood, and the Louisiana gunners found themselves opposed to six or eight pieces of artillery. ‘Our artillery engaged at very short range,’ said Beauregard, ‘disabling some of the enemy's guns and blowing up two limbers. Another section of the same command opened from the right of the turnpike. They both held their positions, though with heavy loss, until their ammunition was spent, when they were relieved by the reserve artillery under Major Owen.’ The battle over, Butler scurried back to his intrenchments at Bermuda Hundred.

After Cold Harbor, Early was sent with the Second [275] corps to drive from the Shenandoah valley the tardy Federal column that was to have cut off the army of Northern Virginia from the Southwest. The Louisiana brigades, under Zebulon York, former colonel of the Fourteenth, now promoted to brigadier-general, were in that brisk march down the valley, the driving of Sigel's force to Maryland heights, and the rapid and exhausting journey through Maryland under a July sun. They joyfully went with Early, they and Terry's Virginians the representatives of Stonewall Jackson's old division. They never marched more debonairly; never fought more gallantly —as Wallace found at the Monocacy. In that brilliant battle Col. W. R. Peck, of the Ninth, commanding Hays' brigade, earned by his ‘admirable conduct’ the praise of General Gordon. Among the killed and wounded Louisianians, for this last time left on the north of the Potomac, was Lieutenant-Colonel Hodges, Ninth regiment, severely wounded, and left in hospital at Frederick.

When Washington lay before them, like a jewel for the plucking, and Early called halt! at her very gates, a murmur of despair was heard among the veterans. Nor should we forget that, in the unmade attack of July 12, 1864, the Louisianians were too intelligent not to understand there had been, for once, lack of dash in that bold raider who when he was on the point of success had failed to achieve it. That was Early's single chance of making the one surely immortal stroke of the war. The immortality thus gained would have resembled a tent raised by the Arabian sorcerer—large enough to contain not only Early but every man in his army.

Returning across northern Virginia to the valley the Louisianians remained there to fight bravely but unavailingly against great odds in the famous battles of Winchester, September 19th; Fisher's Hill, September 22d, and Cedar Creek, October 9th. At Winchester General York lost an arm, and was succeeded in command by Col. Eugene Waggaman, whom we know as an officer of peculiar [276] courage in the assault of the Tenth Louisiana at Malvern Hill. During the early part of December the brigades were ordered back to the Confederate capital to take position in the defences of Petersburg.

On July 12, 1864, Grant began to leave Lee's front and cross the James. For four perilous days Beauregard alone held the Federals in check before Petersburg. Then Grant found the army of Northern Virginia again before him and despairing of successful assault, sat down to a siege. He had by no means forgotten Lee's strategy. Fearing to be worn out upon the Lee granite, he started the construction of fortifications. From these he opened a bombardment on the Confederate works, which lasted without intermission for eight months. In the organization of the army during the siege, the Madison artillery, Capt. George V. Moody, was assigned to Huger's battalion, First corps; the Donaldsonville artillery, Capt. R. Prosper Landry, to Richardson's battalion, of which Victor Maurin was now major, Third corps; and to the same corps (Hill's), the Washington artillery battalion, Col. B. F. Eshleman, commanding, M. N. Miller, major, the companies being commanded in numerical order by Capts. Edward Owen, J. B. Richardson, Andrew Hero, and Joe Norcum. While Major Maurin was detached in command of artillery at High Bridge, Major Miller took his place with Richardson's battalion.

On duty with the command of General Wise, along the railroad in southwest Virginia, was Coppens' battalion, now known as the Confederate States Zouaves, under Maj Fulgence Bordenave.

On the last day of 1864, General York's command, returned from the valley, was reported in the charge of Col. W. R. Peck—the First and Fourteenth regiments under Capt. James Scott; Second, Capt. W. H. Noel; Fifth, Sixth and Seventh, Capt. John A. Russell; Eighth, Lieut. N. J. Sandlin; Ninth, Capt. Cornelius Shively; Tenth and Fifteenth, Lieut. J. B. W. Penrose. On January 19th [277] and 20th the Washington artillery was put in position at Batteries 34 to 38.

Petersburg will be forever associated with the last act of the tragedy. Life in the faithful city under that tremendous clamor of hundreds of guns loses its sense of security. As the din goes on from day to day, Petersburg becomes like Vicksburg and all beleaguered cities. The hills, with their dry, firm soil, are honeycombed with places for shelter for the poor and timorous. Women, ignorant of tactics, grow to know them by the sound of heavy roar of cannon, friendly or hostile. Each battery is daily the center of a gallant fight, the aggregation of forts and batteries joining their voices in chorus to make up a battle such as Gettysburg, or a passage of the forts such as Farragut's. Little by little the Confederate lines are reduced in size, never wholly withdrawn. Abruptly coming to our ears without are the firing of the cannon on our extreme left and right; the smothered hum of new men arriving; the sudden blare of trumpets, and the deeper beat of drum.

On February 5th the Louisiana brigade, under Colonel Peck, marched out to where the Federals were pushing their fortified line westward at Hatcher's run. Part of Gordon's division, under Gen. C. A. Evans, they moved to the support of Pegram, and on the same day were engaged in skirmishing, Lieut. R. B. Smith, Second Louisiana, commanding the sharpshooters in front. Peck's effective force was only about 20 officers and 400 men, a heroic remnant of two brigades. Colonel Peck and his handful of men made three desperate charges against the enemy in his front, fighting for a sawdust pile in the field which was the momentary strategic point, gaining it each time, but compelled to let go for want of support. Only after firing their last round, and losing 6 men killed and 17 wounded, did they retire from the field. Lieutenant John S. Dea, Eighth regiment, acting as adjutant of the [278] division corps of sharpshooters, a brave soldier and good officer, lost his life that day.

March 25th, Gordon's corps, sent to the other wing of the Confederate works about Petersburg, sought by a gallant night attack to break the Federal line at Fort Stedman, which covered Meade's station, an important point on Grant's supply route from City Point. It was a forlorn hope. But if success were possible, it might force Grant to pause in the ceaseless pushing of his line toward Appomattox creek.

Here the heroic band of Louisianians were again in battle. They were with the columns that seized the fort and captured the garrison before daylight. Again and again the efforts of the Federals to rescue their position were repulsed with bloody slaughter, but before long the inevitable happened Overwhelmed from all sides, the gallant Confederates were forced back to their own lines, leaving many brave men dead and wounded.

On the 29th Grant sent Sheridan westward, and April 1st was the day of battle of Five Forks. Elated, the Federal commander opened a bombardment along the line, and ordered an assault early on the morning of April 2d.

At 2 p. m. the enemy advanced upon Forts Gregg and Whitworth. Around these two forts, Petersburg, hard pressed, will make her final stand. The disproportion between assailants and defenders was appalling—214 men in Fort Gregg; about the same in Fort Whitworth. Against these moved 5,000 men—crazed with the delirium of the new wine of success after the old wine of defeat—straight upon our right.

During the Federal assault in the morning orders had been hastily given by Lieut.-Col. Wm. M. Owen to withdraw to Fort Gregg. These were only partially executed, Lieutenant Battles in the confusion having been captured with his command, owing to the darkness and the absence of horses. Lieut. Frank McElroy, of the Third company, was as quick as a flash from his guns. His [279] practice throughout with artillery-infantry was excellent. Three times did McElroy, with his small garrison, repulse as many attacks; three times his bullets from brigade rifles whizzed around the advancing Federals, decimating them. They fell before McElroy's shells and Harris' rifles, covering the field before Fort Gregg with dead bodies. One-half of the Washington artillery drivers were armed with muskets and placed on duty in the forlorn hope of Fort Gregg. Under Lieutenant McElroy's able and courageous management these drivers did gallant service.

On this terrible day Capt. Andrew Hero, Jr., was wounded at Petersburg, as he had been severely wounded at Sharpsburg. As sergeant, lieutenant and captain, Hero was a true soldier. His name was one particularly hard for a soldier to bear. Smiles were easy, but the smile never came when Hero was at the gun. [280]

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