Making Sense of An “Action” Here and a “Skirmish” There

by Brett Schulte on February 12, 2013 · 0 comments

Editor’s Note: This entry has been cross-posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online.

Actions and Skirmishes: How Do I Find Out What Happened?

As I continue to study all phases and aspects of the massive nine plus month Siege of Petersburg, one interesting topic I’ve come across is the idea of “actions”, “skirmishes”, and the occasional artillery flare-up along the trench lines which wasn’t even dignified with a name, either in 1864 or in the decades between here and there.  Several recent interactions have allowed me to stumble into findings on several of these events, and they got me interested in documenting the experience.

This brief article describes how I came across information on the Skirmish at Hare’s Hill, which occurred on June 24, 1864, at the same time as the larger Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road down the lines to the south.  It also covers how an email led me to the Action at the Watkins House, fought on the same day Gordon’s Second Corps hurled itself against Fort Stedman in a last ditch effort to cause Grant to back off. 

After all, a site like this which delves into the entire Siege of Petersburg should give some air time to these lesser known events rather than regurgitate the Battle of the Crater for the one hundredth time, right?  It might be the only place a person can turn to when their ancestor was killed or wounded in an obscure engagement.  That’s something I’ll be able to take pride in some day, and there will be some fun puzzles to piece together along the way.

Summary of Principal Events During the Siege of Petersburg, June 13-July 31, 1864

You’ll find those engagements known as actions, expeditions, and skirmishes listed in the “Summary of the Principal Events” at the beginning of each Official Records Reports.   For Petersburg, these would include the summaries for Volume 40, Volume 42, and Volume 46.  To give you an idea of the sheer number of these, let’s look at the list for Volume 42, which covers the time period from June 13-July 31, 1864, and includes the Second Battle of Petersburg, the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, The Wilson-Kautz Raid, The First Battle of Deep Bottom, and the Battle of the Crater.  You may be surprised at just how long the list is (major battles excluded):

June 13-July 31, 1864. – The Richmond (Virginia) Campaign.

June 13, 1864. -Skirmish at White Oak Swamp.

Skirmish at Riddell’s Shop.

14, 1864. – Skirmish near Harrison’s Landing.

15, 1864. – Skirmish at Malvern Hill.

Skirmish near Smith’s Store.

16, 1864. – Action on the Bermuda Hundred front.

16-17, 1864. – Actions at Fort Clifton.

17, 1864. – Skirmish on the Bermuda Hundred front.

18, 1864. – Skirmish at King and Queen Court-House.

20, 1864. – Skirmish at White House.

Skirmish at King and Queen Court-House.

June 21, 1864. – Action at Howlett’s Bluff.

Skirmishes at White House of Saint Peter’s Church and Black Creek, or Tunstall’s Station.

23, 1864. – Skirmish at Jones’ Bridge.

24, 1864. – Engagement at Saint Mary’s Church.

Action at Hare’s Hill.

28, 1864. – Action at Howlett’s Bluff.

30-July 1, 1864. – Actions on Four-Mile Creek, at Deep Bottom.

July 12, 1864. – Skirmish at Warwick Swamp.

Skirmish at Turkey Creek.

14, 1864. – Action at Malvern Hill.

16, 1864. – Action at Four-Mile Creek.

Action at Malvern Hill.

17, 1864. – Skirmish at Herring Creek.

27, 1864. – Skirmish near Lee’s Mill.

28, 1864. – Action at Four-Mile Creek.

30, 1864. – Skirmish at Lee’s Mill.

Be honest.  How many of these were you aware of?  I’ve been studying the Siege of Petersburg since 2003 or 4, and I can honestly say that I know only enough to give even a small amount of detail for three of these.  One of my long term goals for this site is to give a detailed summary page for every single one of these, as well as the subsequent actions and skirmishes which occurred from August 1, 1864 to April 2, 1865.  It’s (yet another) ambitious “project within the project”, but I see value there for people researching these small engagements, whatever their reason.

Studying Actions and Skirmishes

So what happened during these actions and skirmishes?  Good luck finding many if any of them in campaign studies.  They don’t exist.  How then, should a person go about studying them?

I’ll admit I had wondered aloud how to do this many times in the past…

The Skirmish at Hare’s Hill (June 24, 1864)

…and then a “light bulb” moment occurred one day while browsing issue by issue through the National Tribune.  In the November 26, 1881 National Tribune I found the oddly titled “Capture of Fort Harrison – How the Rebels Failed to Retake It.”  I say oddly titled because the title omits the subject of the entire first half of the article, the Skirmish at Hare’s Hill, which occurred on June 24, 1864.  Eureka!  I had found a reasonably detailed account of this little fight from the Union perspective.  That day Hagood’s Confederate Brigade charged the far right of the Union lines south of the Appomattox River, trying to ascertain if Grant had weakened his lines in that vicinity to stretch the Confederates southwest of Petersburg.  It ended in failure and recriminations on the Confederate side.  Later, I found a short account of the fight from the Confederate perspective in the June 27, 1864 Richmond Examiner, buried among other accounts of the fighting from June 22-24, 1864:

A FURIOUS CANNONADE.

Friday morning [SOPO: June 24, 1864] the most profound quiet prevailed along our entire line until a few minutes before seven o’clock, when all of a sudden there opened a bombardment from a heavy battery of Confederate artillery stationed in Chesterfield, upon the enemy’s extreme right.  The firing was the most rapid that has been heard in Petersburg during the war, and soon attracted to the house tops and surrounding hills, a great concourse of spectators.  From the roof of a five story building could be seen the discharges of our cannon, and it really seemed that such a shower of shot and shell ought to have annihilated every Yankee invader in the county of Prince George.  In the meantime there was a brisk musketry fire opened in the vicinity of Jordan’s farm, on the City Point road, and the uninitiated at once came to the conclusion that a general engagement had commenced.

The cannonading ceased at a quarter past eight A. M., and the musketry fire was stopped about the same hour.

HAGOOD’S BRIGADE.

About four hundred of Hagood’s South Carolina brigade, who were thrown forward as skirmishers to ascertain the strength of the enemy’s rifle pits, allowed their zeal to get the better of them, and not only carried the pits, but charged up to the enemy’s breastworks.  They were received with a severe musketry volley, and suffered considerable loss.  None estimate their loss at less than one hundred and fifty, and some put it down as high as three hundred.  This brigade was among the first to rush to the rescue of Petersburg, and its people feel a peculiar interest in its welfare.  They have suffered heavily, but not so heavily, we hope, as has been reported.

Since then I’ve found a few other small tidbits here and there about the fight.  When I do, I’m sure to tag the post with the name of the fight as follows: skirmish at hares hill (june 24 1864)

If you click on the link above it gives you a list of every post on this entire site which mentions in some way this small affair. 

The Skirmish at the Watkins House (March 25, 1865)

And just this past weekend another of these small fights became the center of my attention when the following email came in from Peter Lowery, whose ancestor died in the Skirmish at the Watkins House, on March 25, 1865 as a member of the 43rd Alabama:

Trying to get info on an action on the right end of CSA lines on 3/25/65–Chamberlain’s men capture the flag of the 43rd Alabama, part of Bushrod Johnson’s Division, somewhere along Hatchers Run, but I am having a hard time finding if there is an actual name to the engagment. I seek because my great great grandfather in Co. G 43rd AL was captured there. Can you help?

Astute observers might note that this skirmish took place on the same day the Battle of Fort Stedman raged east of Petersburg, only it took place near Hatcher’s Run, far southwest of Stedman. I had never heard of this particular engagement, so I immediately started looking around on the web to see what I could find.  I first started on my Official Records page for Volume 46, which covers the Siege of Petersburg from January 1- April 3, 1865, and checked out the Summary of Principal Events. Only two named skirmishes for March 25, 1865 appeared:

  • Action at the Watkins House.
  • Action at Fort Fisher.

So which one was Mr. Lowery’s ancestor involved in, if either?  I (surprisingly) found a hit right away, and again a period newspaper (with an assist from the late, great Art Bergeron and the excellent history-sites.com Alabama page) provided the answer.  Art was providing some information about the fight to the board members, and a key portion of his post was a copy of an article from the March 30, 1865 Richmond Whig.  All of the pieces fell into place.  The fight along the skirmish line occurred at Watkins Farm, near Hatcher’s Run, on March 25, 1865, and the 43rd Alabama had participated and suffered casualties.  I was able to get back to Mr. Lowery with at least a little of the information he had been seeking and filled in another gap in my knowledge.

Going Forward: The Plan

As I continue to compile primary accounts of the Siege of Petersburg, I’m going to keep an eye out for other mentions of smaller fights, and they will be tagged in the following way:

name of skirmish as listed in ORs (month day, year)

In this way I’ll start to slowly compile information from period newspapers, postwar newspapers, regimental histories, letters, diaries, and more which seem to be the only way these obscure engagements get mentioned more than in passing.  Eventually, every one of these actions and skirmishes will have it’s own small corner of the web in my Battle Summaries section.  On each page, you’ll be able to see a much more user friendly version of the list of posts/pages on my site which pertain to each fight.  This won’t be soon, but the idea is already percolating.

As I wrote this article it occurred to me that Drew Wagenhoffer at Civil War Books and Authors often finds good information about never mentioned Trans-Mississippi fights by reading new regimental or battery histories of units involved in those fights.  I imagine a good place to start when trying to study a skirmish or action at any point in the war is to first identify which units took part, and then try to round up as many regimental histories as you can.  Some of the results may surprise you in terms of the detail you can find.

Conclusion

If you want to find information on some of the lesser known actions of the Civil War, the process is not nearly as simple as going out and buying a book or even a magazine article.  Digging through the primary sources will often prove a rewarding, if time consuming process.  Knowing where to look and how is probably the subject of another article at some point in the future.  Keep an eye out.


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