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

The Diary of a Line Officer, Captain Augustus C. Brown, Co. H, 4th NY Heavy Artillery

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.

Sunday, July 31st.

At midnight I received an order from Col. Wainwright, Chief of Artillery of the Fifth Corps, directing me to get my battery out of “Fort Hell” as quickly as possible, and teams for the purpose arriving at about 3 o’clock A. M., we had the guns out and at the foot of the covered way by daylight, and I accompanied them to Siege Train Landing and turned them over to the proper officer, my two companies in the meantime reporting to the regimental camp without the loss of a man. Why the battery was ordered out so suddenly I do not know, unless it was because of a rumor that the enemy was mining our fort, and the facts that in our magazine we could occasionally hear muffled sounds apparently coming from the earth beneath, and that quite a number of men were seen from time to time to enter and leave the cellar of an old house between the lines which had been burned, furnished some confirmation of the rumor, for we knew that work of that sort was going on at other points.

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.

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.

Thursday, July 28th.

With part of the company I was “on fatigue” to-day, which means working on the breastworks, and Edmonston remained in camp.

Wednesday July 27th.

Captain Gould was detailed to-day with his Co. K. to take charge of six Coehorn Mortars in a work on the line of the Eighteenth Corps, a little to the right of the point where it is rumored that a mine under the enemy’s works is being dug. The Second Corps drew out of the works yesterday, and it is reported that it has gone way around to the right. Heavy firing was heard in that direction this morning.

Tuesday, July 26th.

The whole regiment was at work all day on the fortifications, and it looks as if the plan is to settle down to a regular siege. Already the earthworks on both sides form two or three lines and are very heavy, and at points the picket lines are hardly twenty yards apart. Frequently the pickets get very chummy, and I have heard that they sometimes have a game of cards with each other, though I have never seen it, but I do know that when the men seem to be getting familiar, orders will be issued by one side or the other to commence firing, and then we hear, “Get into your holes, Yanks,” or “Lie low, Johnnies, we’ve got orders to fire.” During the day I saw a man killed by a shell passing straight down the “covered way” some distance behind the works, and another killed by a mortar shell which went into the ground and exploded close by where he was sitting in one of the mortar battery forts.

Monday, July 25th.

We were to-day ordered back to the Second Corps, but, upon the representation of Capt. Mendall of the Engineers, the order was countermanded.

Sunday, July 24th.

Ever since the 14th we have maintained our camp, and been occupied in building brush houses and log huts; in digging great holes in the ground and sinking cracker boxes at the bottoms to catch what little water soaks out of the sand, and in drilling and assisting in the construction of field works. On the 19th rain, so long prayed for, came, and for a few hours at least everybody was happy. My own brush house at the head of my company street is really quite comfortable. It contains three bunks made of small saplings for the use of Lieutenants Edmonston and Parkhurst and myself, and a cracker box for a table, and we have actually been able to indulge in the luxury of having our shoes polished every morning, and of occasionally reading the New York papers. In addition to woodticks and “graybacks,” there is a large blue fly indigenous in these parts, the feet of which are so constructed that when it alights it cannot be brushed off without the most persistent scraping, and Lynch, the hero of the Major’s tent, has been instructed to lay a newspaper over the face of each of us when he comes for our shoes at daylight, for it is then that these flies are most troublesome. I had noticed that for several mornings when we were ready for our modest breakfast, Lynch’s breath indicated that he had indulged in a morning nip, and occasionally he would be quite unsteady on his pins, as well as original in his ideas, for once when I gave him a knife to clean he deliberately stropped it on the greasy leg of his trousers and handed it back for my use, and as we had each been careful to give him no orders on the Commissary, I could not imagine where his supplies came from. One morning when he spread the papers as usual I happened to be awake, though he did not know it, and there being a hole through the paper just in front of one of my eyes, I saw him stretch up over the sleeping Edmonston, whose bunk was across the house at the foot of my bunk, take down his canteen and regale himself with a generous swig. Taking up my shoes he went out and polished them, and on returning for Edmonston’s shoes he again reached for the canteen, but just as his arm was fully extended I sat up and shouted ’bout face,” and he obeyed the order instantly, his arm still in the air and an expression on his face utterly impossible to describe. The two lieutenants, startled out of their slumbers, sat up and enjoyed the poor fellow’s discomfiture when caught in the act, quite as much as I did, and I doubt if Edmonston ever again leaves his canteen so exposed.

Private Blair, the man who, as already described, disappointed the “Johnny Reb” who wanted to make a prisoner of him, is one of the best men in the company, and when there is any fighting or other duty to be done he is always on hand, but he has a decided weakness for foraging, and he and his immediate friends always seem to have something in their haversacks. On one occasion when I was some distance from the front, I saw Blair prowling about in a little grove near which I observed two or three sheep running about. Of course I knew what he was after for he had his rifle with him, and the moment he saw me he dodged behind a tree and remained until I was out of sight. That night our cook gave us some very tender lamb for our supper, saying that it had been presented by some one who did not care to have his name mentioned, and when I was making my usual rounds through the company street after “taps,” I was amused to hear from behind Blair’s quarters the recital to his tent-mates of the incidents of the day, the most satisfactory of which to him seemed to be, that owing to his strategy the Captain hadn’t caught him, though he asserted that if the Captain had actually seen him shoot the sheep, he didn’t think anything would have been said about it, as that officer had himself had some of the mutton. And I incline to think that Blair was right, for a few days before I had done some foraging on my own hook, and no officer should criticise an enlisted man for doing what he does himself. Taking Joe Solomon with me one day, I went to a house situated some distance from our camp where I was credibly informed that there was a barn full of chickens, and attempted to negotiate with the lady of the house for a pair of them at any price in greenbacks which she might be pleased to name, but she was very decided in her refusal to oblige me, and moreover declared that “Yankee money was no good.” General Patrick, the Provost Marshal of the army, had posted a squad of infantry under command of a Captain as a guard at this house, and realizing that so long as the guard should remain the woman would have the better of the argument, I quietly waited until the guard was relieved, when I renewed my application and, meeting with no success, sent Joe with a darky who had confidentially informed me that there were “fifty of ’em dar,” to select two of the finest specimens, and in the meantime vainly endeavored to persuade the woman to accept my proffered two dollars. When the men returned from the barn with the chickens I gave the money to the grinning “contraband,” but before Joe and I were out of sight on the way to camp, the woman was fighting him for its possession. That night the birds were served for supper, and proved to be two of the very toughest old tooth-defying cacklers that could have been found in all Virginia, and it seemed to me that retributive justice had rubbed it in with unnecessary emphasis.

One morning Lieut. Parkhurst did not turn out of his blankets with his customary promptness, and on inquiry Lieut. Edmonston informed me that he had had a “presentiment,” an experience not uncommon in the army. Thereupon I went and sat on the side of his bunk, and tried to encourage him to throw off the depressing apprehension which possessed him that he was to be killed in our next engagement. I met with little success at first, for, while as brave an officer as there is in the army, his anxiety for the welfare of his wife, and of others near and dear to him, had overmastered him for the time being, and when I remembered that Artificer Benedict had told me of a similar “presentiment” which he had had the day before he was killed at the battle of Harris Farm, near Spottsylvania, I confess that I was not without some misgivings as to the credence to be accorded to premonitions. Parkhurst was the first man whom I promoted when I took command of Company H, making him a corporal much against his preferences after he had served as a private in the company for nearly two years, and he had won his commission as a Lieutenant after an examination and solely on his merits, though it did not actually reach him until he had served as a non-commissioned officer during a large part of the campaign, and when I succeeded in having him assigned to my company as Second Lieutenant, I felt that in Edmonston and Parkhurst I had the best two all-around officers in the regiment. Hence I was more than usually concerned about Parkhurst being thus apparently stampeded, but after having argued with him for some time, citing cases where “presentiments” had proved false, and assured him that if anything should happen to him Edmonston or I would see that all his expressed wishes with reference to his family were carried out, he gradually recovered control of himself, and I am happy to say that until this time at least he is as good as new, though he has since been under fire.

And while throwing some sidelights on our camp life for the past ten days, I must not omit to mention an incident which furnishes all the elements of a nice little Sunday school story, and has the advantage of most of such stories in actually being true. Dropping into one of the larger brush houses one day, I found several of my brother officers sitting on cracker boxes around a table formed by two larger boxes covered with canvas, engaged in a game of draw-poker. Among them was the Captain whose men had sought cover in the ditch during the charge of the 18th of June, as hereinbefore described, and he was anathematizing his luck at cards in language characteristically lurid and vigorous. After watching the game for a little while, I told him that his remarks reminded me that I had a question which I wanted to ask him, and without interrupting his “straddling of blinds” and “going five better,” he bade me “fire away.” “Well,” I said, “you remember how your men dropped into that ditch on the 18th—” and I got no farther before he let off a volley of verbal pyrotechnics at his men for disgracing themselves and him, which fairly charged the atmosphere with linguistic sulphur and attracted the attention of every player at the table. Before he could catch his breath I broke in with—”Yes, I know, but I noticed at the time that although you were greatly humiliated and distressed at the conduct of your men, and were begging them most abjectly to get into line, you never indulged in a single cuss word, and the fact was so remarkable that right there in the midst of the fight, I made up my mind that if you and I should survive, I would ask you why it was that you maintained such complete control of your variegated and iridescent vocabulary, when I expected a perfect aurora borealis of vituperation.” Slapping his cards face down upon the table he turned to me and said, very seriously, “Yes, you are right. I remember it perfectly. I did not swear. I noticed it myself, and, to tell you the truth, the reason was that I was too d—d scared to swear.” Not a man who heard him, however, accepted that explanation, for all knew that he was one of the bravest of the brave, and knew, for they had been there and knew how it was themselves, that the simple fact was that at that particular time he realized the possibilities of the situation, and did not court the combination of a bullet in his heart and an oath on his lips.

After the hand was played out the Captain turned again to me and said: “It was that whiskey on an empty stomach that did the business for my boys, but tell me, Chaplain (I was sometimes addressed as Chaplain because I wore, a long blue overcoat and did not indulge in stimulants while in the field), for I, too, have a question to ask, Is it true that when you refused an order to your Commissary Sergeant for a ration of whiskey for Company H, you told him that we were just going into a fight, and that if you or any of your company should go to heaven or hell that day, you proposed that the detail should go cold sober?” Of course, he did not quote me correctly, but it was the fact that I refused the order when sought, though I had a ration issued immediately after the fight was over and when we got back to the sunken road.

To-day two of our battalions were engaged from five o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock in the evening in building earthworks for mortar batteries.

Thursday, July 14th.

Ten companies of the regiment under Lieut. Col. Alcock were to-day ordered to report to General Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, and were assigned to the Siege Train, Col. Henry S. Abbott commanding, and as soon as other infantry troops arrived to take our place on the lines, we moved to a point in the woods near the Engineers and laid out our first regular camp since we left Culpepper. This is the ninth disposition that has been made of my battalion since we left Fort Marcy, but the officers and men feel particularly elated that the regiment, or the greater part of it, has been brought together, and that at last, after losing more than half of our men, we are to be permitted to perform the duty for which we enlisted, and we wonder whether our letter to the President had anything to do with this assignment but, of course, we shall never know.