Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

The American Civil War

Monday, August 1st.

There is much speculation in the army as to the reason why the explosion of the mine did not accomplish what had apparently been expected of it, and bitter criticisms are freely indulged in by many of the officers and men at the loss, as we hear it reported, of from three to four thousand men with no compensatory result. The wildest rumors are in circulation, one being that General Grant had no confidence in the scheme and at the time of the explosion was actually playing cards with General Rawlings at City Point. Another is that owing to the reported strained relations between Generals Meade and Burnside, the former did not wish the mine, which was on Burnside’s front, to prove a success, and that after the fiasco he pretended to be very much disappointed and actually put Burnside in arrest, Grant countermanding the arrest as soon as he heard of it. Yet another is that Burnside is to be dismissed and Meade removed. Still another is that some of the general officers charged with the execution of the plan showed the white feather, and failed to lead their men to the assault as they should have done. There is no place in the world where gossip prevails to the extent that it does in an army in the field, and in the countless and conflicting statements of fact which seem to have acquired currency, I very much doubt if the true history of the causes which led to the failure of the mine is ever written. But whatever the real facts may have been, it is my individual opinion that if there had been an officer in supreme command, who kept himself in close touch with all parts of the line and knew the exact situation as it existed at the more important points, and so had been able promptly to take advantage of any favorable opportunities suddenly and unexpectedly arising, any disaster occurring at one point could and would have been retrieved by an overwhelming success at another point.

August 1, 1864.

Since the glorious battle of the 28th, everything has been quiet in our immediate front, though the heavy artillery firing continues to the left. I think it is between the 14th and 20th Corps and some Rebel forts. Prisoners say that our shells have hurt the city very much. We all think that the last battle is by far the most brilliant of the campaign. Our officials’ reports show that we buried 1,000 Rebels in front of our and M. L. Smith’s divisions.

In fact, our two divisions and two regiments of Osterhaus’ did all the fighting. Our total loss was less than 550, the Rebels 8,000. In the last 12 days they must have lost 25,000 men. Our loss in the same time will not reach 4,500. There is no shadow of gas in this, as you would know if you could see an unsuccessful charge on works.

The enemy is reported as moving to our right in heavy force.

Saturday, July 30th.

During last night the Second Corps, which had returned from the extreme right of our lines where it had been sent to make a demonstration as a feint, as we were told, came in on our right and rear and lay in a railroad cut with its right resting near the right of the Fifth Corps, and its left extending nearly parallel but slightly diagonally to the rear of that corps. Early in the morning a Regular Army Sergeant named Charles Miller, with two brass twelve-pounders from some Regular battery, reported to me and I placed his section between my Nos. 5 and 6, where there were two platforms and embrasures for lighter guns. As soon as I saw the vast inverted cone of earth, fire and smoke caused by the gigantic explosion, I gave the order “commence firing, No. I fire!” and before the noise of the explosion, or even the trembling of the earth, had reached us, No. 1 had sent a thirty-three pound shell into a two-gun battery facing us, smashing through the parapet and opening the way for a shell from No. 2, which, aimed by Corporal O’Connor as a columbiad for want of a tunnion sight, sent its shell under the muzzle of an old-fashioned barbette gun doing duty as a field-piece, and dismounted it before it could fire a shot in our direction. Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 followed in rapid succession, and the order “fire at will” brought on an almost continuous roar. There was a rebel camp in plain sight over near “Fort Damnation,” and when the first shell from my No. 6 dropped among the tents and exploded, it was amusing to see the “Johnnies” turning out in consternation and very few clothes, and skedaddling to cover. Although the platforms in our fort were large and well built, the recoil of these guns was so great that at every discharge, with muzzles depressed and trails in the air, they would run backward and down the inclines leading to the platforms, and to overcome this tendency to roll out of action, I was obliged to have two men on the trail handspike of each gun, and a man on each side to drop an armful of wood, stick by stick, under the wheels to take up as much as was possible of the recoil.

After the firing of troops and artillery immediately in front of the Crater had perceptibly slackened, and it was evident that our charging columns were not being pushed through the enemy’s works as had been planned, and while, having practically completed the work General Warren had given me to do, I was firing slowly and giving my guns an opportunity to cool off, for they were so hot that one could hardly bear his hand on them, General Bartlett, an officer with a wooden leg, who commanded some troops on our right and from his position could see what was going on at the Crater, came into “Fort Hell” and told me that a force of the enemy was forming at a point in the rear of the Crater, with the intention, apparently, of charging our forces which were inextricably mixed up in that fearful excavation, and wanted to know if I could not break up the formation. I could not see the troops of which he spoke, they being concealed from me by a little knoll and some rebel earthworks, but taking his estimate of the distance at fifteen hundred yards, I cut the time-fuses of three or four shells for that range for my Nos. 1 and 2, and gave the guns the requisite elevation, while the General stumped back to his command to note the result of the experiment. In a few moments he sent a staff officer to say that I had the direction and distance very accurately, but that my shells were exploding in the air and a little short. Thereupon I cut the fuses of four or five other shells so as to give them an additional half second of time, and before I had exhausted the new supply, the General sent another staff officer to say that my last shells had dropped right into the bunch and had scattered it like a flock of sheep, and that I needn’t waste any more ammunition on his account.

Not very long after this incident, General Warren came into the fort, and seeing that with the one hundred and ninety-six rounds which my battery had fired that morning we had leveled many yards of the enemy’s breastworks in our front, and had dismounted or silenced every gun in front of his corps except one which did not bear our way, the extremely heavy traverse of which defied all our efforts, inquired whether I had seen any large body of troops in those breastworks or their vicinity, and upon my telling him that there seemed to be nothing but a heavy picket line in front of us, he called one of his staff officers and sent him to General Meade with the request, as I understood it, that he be permitted to attack with his corps, by swinging it, by brigade or division, to the right, and passing through the breach in the enemy’s works with a brigade or division front. After a while the officer returned and reported that General Meade declined to grant General Warren’s request.

Some time afterwards General Hancock came into the Fort in company with General Warren, and after some conversation the two officers sent a united request, in substance, that Warren be permitted to make the move which he had himself suggested earlier in the day, and that Han-cock’s corps should swing into the lines vacated by Warren’s corps, so that if Warren was successful Hancock could follow him up, while if Warren was unsuccessful he could fall back on Hancock. This united request was also refused, and the staff officer reported that General Meade had said that those officers knew the plan of operations for the day and that it would be adhered to, and, in substance, that when he desired those corps to move he would give the necessary orders. I do not pretend to have quoted the language accurately, but I know that the message from General Meade as reported was somewhat brusque and emphatic, and that General Hancock indulged in some terse and vigorous English. I cannot give the exact hour of the day when either of the requests above mentioned was sent to General Meade, for I had been up all night and took little note of time, but I know that the firing had practically ceased on both sides, and that it was not until some hours afterwards that the main body of the enemy’s troops, which had been lured off to their left a day or two before by Hancock’s corps, came filing back into such of their works in our front as still remained and afforded them shelter. I shall always feel that had the request of General Warren been granted this morning, when a wide door had been opened in his front and there was but a small force to dispute his passage through, Lee’s right would have been pierced, Petersburg been taken and the war ended.

The picket lines in front of “Fort Hell” were very near together,—not more than fifteen or twenty yards apart, I should think. The men on these lines were usually relieved in the night time, and each occupied a little “gopher hole,” from which, through an aperture between rocks and logs arranged for his protection, he would occasionally take a shot at some exposed adversary. During our cannonade one of these chaps on the rebel line had given us some trouble by firing through the embrasures and splintering the spokes of the wheels of our gun carriages, but he was a bad marksman and injured none of the men, though he chipped a piece out of the buckle of my sword belt and gave me a little pain in the center for a moment. I could not depress any of the guns enough to reach him, even if the game had been worth the candle, but determining to quiet him, I placed two infantry soldiers on either side of an embrasure, where they were hidden by the sand bags which formed the crest of the works, with instructions to locate the point where the fellow’s musket came through, and then one of them to return his fire and the other to wait a few seconds until he might be expected to be peeping through for an observation, and then fire. Finding after a few failures that the man had evidently gotten on to the scheme, I placed a third infantry man a short distance from one of the others, and this arrangement seemed to be quite outside of the picket’s calculations, for after the third man had fired but once we heard nothing more from that “gopher hole.”

Along towards night confidence seemed to be in a measure restored between the picket lines in our front, the men frequently hailing each other and carrying on more or less conversation, and the “Johnnies” taunting our men with the inquiry, “Why didn’t you ‘Yanks’ take these works to-day? There wasn’t a hundred men in them.” Private Short-sleeves of my company, actually slipped out through an embrasure and went over to the picket line and exchanged a quantity of hardtack for several plugs of very black and repulsive-looking tobacco.

Saturday, July 30. — We were formed in column of brigade wings, the 2d Brigade leading, under Colonel Marshall. General Bartlett commanded our brigade, Colonel Gould having the right wing, and I the left, consisting of the 21st Massachusetts on the right, the 56th Massachusetts in the centre, and the 100th Pennsylvania on the left. We were in position about three quarters of an hour before the mine was blown up, and while waiting my feelings were anything but pleasant. The officers and men were disappointed and discouraged at having to lead, as we had heard all along that the negroes were to do this, and we had no confidence in Ledlie. He had failed us on several occasions, notably on June 17. At 4.30 A.M. the mine was blown up. It was just early dawn, light enough to distinguish a person a few yards off. The explosion was the grandest spectacle I ever saw. The first I knew of it, was feeling the earth shaking. I looked up and saw a huge mass of earth and flame rising some 50 or 60 feet in the air, almost slowly and majestically, as if a volcano had just opened, followed by an immense volume of smoke rolling out in every direction. The noise was very slight indeed, considering that there were nine tons of powder exploded. The men of the division were stampeded at first, but were soon rallied. We charged, having to go by the flank, as we could only get over in one or two places, and entered the enemy’s pits under a moderately heavy fire. We found an immense hole here, formed by the explosion, some 30 feet deep by 100 long and 40 wide. We were ordered to go to the right of the crater, and here I endeavored to re-form my regiments. The scene inside was horrible. Men were found half buried; some dead, some alive, some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken. We held the enemy’s line about three or four hours, capturing some 500 prisoners. When we had been there about four hours, the negro troops charged over, filling our pits and crowding us so that our men could not use their muskets. They made a charge on the enemy in our front, which was repulsed and followed by a countercharge, driving the negroes head over heels on to us, trampling down every one, and adding still more to the confusion. Several negroes were shot down close by me. I was taken prisoner and sent to the rear, where I found several of my men, together with Captain Fay. While on the way, I had to climb a breastwork exposed to our men’s fire. I saw the rebs run up and shoot negro prisoners in front of me. One was shot four times. We were taken to a place about half a mile from Petersburg, and kept there until evening. General Bartlett, Colonel Marshall and Captain Amory arrived about 4 P.M., in a squad that was captured later. We were moved still nearer the city, and camped in an open lot there. Charlie Amory had his boots stolen from under his head while asleep. He was using them as a pillow.

[These notes are written fifty years after the event, but it seems to me as if the whole matter was as vivid and clear as if it had happened yesterday. We started down late that evening and got into the covered way, which was a zigzag trench leading up to our rifle-pits. The rifle-pits had strong abattis trenches and wires and everything else, including chevaux-de-frise, to impede any of the enemy who were charging us. Orders had been given that the trenches were to be filled up with sand-bags, and the abattis removed for a space of 200 yards, so that a regiment could march forward practically in line of battle. This was not done, for when we charged we had to go by the flank, not more than four men at a time, a space only about eight or ten feet having been filled up, and none of the abattis removed. This delayed the advance very much and undoubtedly had a great deal to do with losing us the battle this day. The mine was planned to be blown up at half-past four, but the fuse went out and they had to send men in to unpack the stuff which had been put around the fuse to prevent the force of the powder blowing out the tunnel, which took some time, so that it finally blew up at about half-past six or seven. The minute the mine exploded, a hundred and forty of our guns opened fire from the lines in the rear, shelling the Confederate lines all around on both sides of us. It was a magnificent sight and one never to be forgotten. I never shall forget my mortification while waiting for this mine to blow up. The troops were all standing in line, ready to charge, and bullets fired by sharpshooters and pickets kept zipping over us all the time and the men kept ducking. They were not to blame for this, as the orders were, when we were in the rifle-pits, invariably to duck if they saw a puff of smoke from the other side. This was absolutely necessary, as we lost men every day from their curiosity in peeking up to see what was going on. The minute a cap appeared it was the target for a dozen sharpshooters. Of course we were all nervous, standing there waiting for a charge which we were very uncomfortable about, owing to reasons which I have explained later on, and the men kept ducking as a bullet passed by. I said, “Steady, men, that bullet has gone by you by the time you hear it.” Just then a bullet, which I am convinced was specially meant-for me, went whizzing by me and I at once ducked. Every one laughed and I did not blame them, but a more mortified man than I was never lived.

When the mine did go up, it looked as if this immense cloud of timber, dirt and stones and everything was going to fall right down on us and we involuntarily shrank back. We at once got over this and started to make the charge. When we got to the pits, as I have said, there was no getting over except by a flank. Instead of going over about in line of battle, we moved by the flank through this narrow space, and before I could get over, the firing had become very hot and the dust was knocked up all around my feet all the time as I went over. The neglect to fix the works in our front also had another very bad effect. It broke the regiments all up. The men went over by the flank, scattered along as they could get through, and with almost no organization. As soon as we got into the crater, I did all I could to get my men together, and in some sort of shape for a fight. By that time it was almost impossible to do anything. We were as badly off then as we were in our own pits. There was no head. Our division commander was off on the other side and did not come over with us. General Bartlett was a cripple and had his wooden leg broken, and it was almost impossible to get anything done. I came near having my head knocked off by grape-shot two or three times. Finally the rebels charged on both our flanks. I was packed in there in the midst of the negroes. It was a perfect pandemonium. The negroes charged into the mine, and we were packed in there like sardines in a box. I literally could not raise my arms from my side. Finally, when the Confederates charged, those of the men nearest the rifle-pits next our line got over the line and got away. Luckily most of my men I had formed there, so that they were able to get away and protect our colors.

I got cut off and took refuge in a bomb-proof, as I could not run away, being surrounded on all sides. Pretty soon the rebels yelled, “Come out of there, you Yanks.” I walked out, and the negro who had gone in there with me, and Captain Fay came out also. The negro was touching my side. The rebels were about eight feet from me. They yelled out, “Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man”; and the negro was promptly shot down by my side. They then grabbed my sword and my hat. “Come out of that hat, you Yank!” they yelled; and one of them cried, “What do you ‘uns come down here and fight we ‘uns for?” Then they told me to get over our embankment in their rear, which formed their second line, and I scrambled up, the bullets from our own men striking the dirt on all sides of me. I got over the embankment all right, and was walking to the rear, when I saw a negro soldier ahead of me. Three rebels rushed up to him in succession and shot him through the body. He dropped dead finally at the third shot. It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I ever had in my life. You could not fight, you could not give an order, you could not get anything done. Out of the nine regiments in my brigade I was the only regimental commander left alive. The others were all killed outright or mortally wounded. We were sent back about a mile to the rear and camped on a hill that night.

My diary for the year 1864, during the Wilderness Campaign, was carried in my boot-leg and so escaped seizure when I was captured at the mine.]

Friday, July 29th.

Very quiet in front of the Fifth Corps, which is now on the extreme left, but firing is brisk in front of the Ninth. While “on fatigue” again to-day in command of the Second Battalion, I was ordered to camp to take charge of a battery of four and a half inch rifled siege guns in front of the Fifth Corps, with my Own Co. H, and a detail from Co. F, for I did not have men enough left in my company to man and work a six-gun battery. At three o’clock in the afternoon I reported in person to General Warren at his Headquarters for instructions, and there met the General, his Chief of Staff, Col. Locke, and his Chief of Artillery, Col. Wainwright. The General at the moment of my arrival was experimenting with some new kind of shells which the enemy had fired at his Headquarters, and was exploding them in a hole in the ground, but he at once took me into the house which he was occupying, and spreading on a table a large map showing the position of the various works on both sides in front of his Corps, and to the right as far as the salient under which was the mine, gave me the whole plan of attack for the following morning, including not only the part which my battery was to take but also the part which each of the Corps was to take. Indeed, so full and accurate were his descriptions of situation, distance and direction, that although I could see but a small part of the enemy’s line the next morning, I had no difficulty in dropping my heavy shells just where the General desired and avoiding our own charging columns at and near the Crater.

At five o’clock that afternoon, my First Lieutenant, Edmonston, conducted my company, with the detail from Company F, to Fort Sedgwick, which was called “Fort Hell” by the soldiers, a large earthwork in front of, and connected with, the breastworks of the Fifth Corps, and located on the Jerusalem Plank Road running into Petersburg, where I joined the command soon afterwards. About nine o’clock at night the six heavy “ordnance guns,” as they were called, all apparently new and resting in their traveling beds, with even their trunnion sights removed, drawn by mules and accompanied by ammunition wagons, all in charge of a drunken wagon-master, arrived at the foot of the “covered way” which zig-zagged up to our fort from a hollow in the rear. My men were perfectly familiar with these guns, even to the minutest details, and taking charge of them at once, by dint of hard work we had each piece in position, shifted from its traveling to its trunnion bed, its sights adjusted, a charge rammed home, its gunners at their posts, and the lanyard ready to hook to its friction primer, and the whole battery in every respect ready for business, just as the mine was exploded at about half-past four o’clock in the morning of the 30th. Five of the guns bore directly on the rebel work which was to be blown up, and the works between it and my fort, while No. 6 stood in an angle and bore on the rebel fort Mahone, or “Fort Damnation,” as it was called.

One and three-quarter miles southwest of Atlanta,

July 29, 1864.

On the evening of the 26th, Adj. Frank Lermond sent me word that the Army of the Tennessee was going to evacuate its position, the movement to commence at 12 p.m. When the lines are so close together the skirmish line is a ticklish place.

The parties can tell by hearing artillery move, etc., nearly what is going on, and in evacuation generally make a dash for the skirmish line or rear guard. At nearly every position Johnston has fortified we caught his skirmish line when he evacuated. Luckily our line got off about 4 a.m. on the 27th though they shelled us right lively.

That day our three corps moved along in the rear of the 23d, 4th, 14th and 20th, the intention being, I think, to extend the line to the right, if possible, to the Montgomery and Atlanta railroad and thus destroy another line of communication. We have thoroughly destroyed 50 miles of the Augusta and Atlanta railroad. The 16th Corps formed its line on the right of the 14th, and the 17th joined on the 16th, and on the morning of the 28th, we moved out to extend the line still further. At 12 m. we had just got into position and thrown a few rails along our line, when Hood’s Rebel corps came down on Morgan L’s and our divisions like an avalanche. Our two divisions did about all the fighting, and it lasted until 5 p.m.

We whipped them awfully. Their dead they left almost in line of battle along our entire front of two divisions.

It was the toughest fight of the campaign, but not a foot of our line gave way, and our loss is not one-twentieth of theirs. The rails saved us. I am tired of seeing such butchery but if they will charge us that way once a day for a week, this corps will end the war in this section.

Our loss in the regiment was 17 out of 150 we had in the fight, and the brigade loss will not exceed 100. I never saw so many Rebels dead. We are in excellent spirits, and propose to take Atlanta whenever Sherman wants it.

Friday, July 29. — Charlie Amory came as brigade adjutant-general. We were called up to General Bartlett’s headquarters and told that the mine was to be sprung, and our division was to lead in the charge. We were told that we were to press on through the mine to the hill beyond, called Cemetery Hill. We were relieved about 10 P.M. by colored troops from the Eighteenth Corps, and moved to the rear. About 2 A.M. we moved to the front through Willcox’s covered way, and got into position about 4 A.M.

Headquarters 56th Mass. Vols.,
Near Petersburg, Va., July 28, 1864.

Dear Hannah, — I enclose a beautiful ambrotype of two illustrious officers of Uncle Sam’s Army. One of them is Major Hovey (just promoted to Major A. I. G. of General Ledlie’s staff) and the other is your humble servant. This work of beauty and art was taken at City Point, Virginia, yesterday. I went down there on a pleasure trip with Major H., and had quite a pleasant time. I stopped at General Benham’s headquarters, which are at the Point, to see Channing Clapp. He was not there, so I resolved to beard the lion in his den, and see the general himself. So in I went, and shook hands with him. He was very polite, and asked after Uncle Oliver. We had quite a long talk on war matters, etc., in which the old gentleman showed his usual amount of conceit. He bid me good-bye very pleasantly.

I then went to General Grant’s headquarters, to see Mr. Dunn and thank him for bringing me that box, but could not find him. Please thank Father and receive my own thanks yourself for the contents of the box. We also went down to the wharf at City Point, where we saw the usual amount of ships, steamers, sutlers’ shops, etc., which always congregate at the depot of supplies for an army. Near here we had our pictures taken, each one costing two dollars. About a mile from City Point we came to the army hospitals, in a fine location, with the grounds well laid out and neatly policed, etc. They have two engines there which pump the water up from the river into a tank. From this tank the water is distributed all over the grounds to large wooden tubs. All the streets are watered by regular watering carts, so that the grounds are free from dust, and the air cool and pleasant. Dr. Dalton is in charge of the whole machine. We stopped and called on him, and had a very pleasant time. He is Henry Dalton’s brother, and is a very smart man indeed. After leaving the hospital we rode for home, or rather for the second line of rifle-pits in General Burnside’s front, having passed a very agreeable day. On reaching my regiment, I found that we were under orders to be ready to move, as an attack was expected on our left, the Second Corps having moved from there to the extreme right, the other side of James River. Hancock had a fight there, capturing 4 guns and some provisions. You will learn the particulars by the papers before this reaches you.

The mine is all finished, the powder in, the fuse all ready, and nothing wanting to make it go off except a lighted match, which will be applied, I think, to-morrow morning. Our brigade moves to the front line to-night, so that I don’t know whether we shall be in the scrimmage or not. I rather think we shall get into it, however, before the day is out. It will make some noise, as there are to be five (5) tons of gunpowder placed in it.

I hope that the attack, or assault, will be successful; for if it is, we shall [have] Petersburg in our possession. . . .

Headquarters 56th Mass. Vols.,
Near Petersburg, Va., July 26, 1864.

Dear Hannah, — I received a letter from you this morning dated July 22d. . . .

I am now in a most delightful situation, sitting under the shade of some large trees near General Burnside’s headquarters, with a delightfully cool breeze blowing. We are now enjoying our two days in the rear, but unfortunately they end this evening, making it necessary for us to go back to the second line of works.

Our brigade was reviewed this morning by General Ledlie. We had quite a decent review considering the situation we have been in.

My box arrived yesterday with everything safe. I invited John Jones to dinner, and just as dinner arrived, General Bartlett came in, so that we had quite a sociable time of it. Your candy and ginger came in as a dessert, and quite a welcome one it was. The cigars were very nice indeed. To-day I opened the cracker-box, and treated myself and friends to them. They were hard and dry, and tasted remarkably well.

I had a letter from Eliot Furness[1] a day or two ago, asking me to try and get him a position as field officer in one of the negro regiments under General Burnside. He said he wanted to get it so that he might be married. He is at present with General Gordon at Memphis, Tennessee.

That mine that I told you of is finished and I expect that it will soon be blown up. It extends under the first and second lines of the enemy. I understand that two or three tons of powder are to be placed in it. Imagine what a cheerful time the enemy, who may be above it when it is blown up, will have. . . .

[1] William Eliot Furness, a classmate.

July 16, 1864, 76th of the Campaign.

I can hear no firing to-day, but we are so far from the right or center that we could hear nothing less than a 13-inch mortar. I will tell you all I know of the situation just to let you know how little a soldier knows of what is going on. In papers of this date you will see twice as much. The 17th Army Corps lies on the right bank of the river, and to the right of the army, six miles below the railroad crossing, skirmishing with the enemy on the opposite side. Next comes the 20th, 14th and 4th on the same side, the 4th lying across the railroad four miles, further up the 23d crossed the river, but probably only holds a position, as we do. Then the 16th Corps joins the left of the 23d, and the 15th last, both on the left bank. Not being perfect in heavy strategy, I can’t exactly see the point, but no doubt Sherman does. I suppose the 4th, 14th and 20th Corps will cross near the railroad bridge, and be the first to occupy Atlanta. If we can’t get to give Johnston a sound thrashing, I don’t care about marching another step until fall. Health of the regiment still good, but we are expecting sickness soon. We have had a terrific thunderstorm, killed five men and wounded eight in the 18th Missouri, and killed a teamster and some mules. I never saw but one or two more severe ones.