Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 5

BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This post was first posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been crossposted here. This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.



For many hours, the Union troops had been enduring artillery and sniper fire from the Dimmock Line, while Smith made his careful preparations. The 25th Massachusetts, still lying low in a cornfield, had not even fired back at their opponents. The 13th New Hampshire did manage to advance its skirmishers, who used tree stumps and logs as cover, until by 5:00 p.m. some of their men had reached the base of the Dimmock Line. The 4th and 22nd USCT managed to seize some advanced Confederate positions at 5:30 p.m. before halting for the order to attack. Then, the Union artillery opened up just after 6:20 p.m. The barrage was effective in confusing the Confederates and silencing their guns. After roughly twenty minutes, Martindale, Brooks, Ames, and Hinks moved their men.[i]

Martindale’s attack was poorly coordinated. On the extreme right flank, Colonel Griffin A. Stedman’s brigade charged the rebel lines and was thrown back. Stedman’s alignments had been thrown into disarray when Company B 12th Virginia Artillery fired at them from Archer’s Hill across the Appomattox River. The unit was led by Captain S. Taylor Martin, a former teacher and theologian. His outfit was composed of experienced artillery officers, and as such their fire was particularly deadly. Further away from the river Brigadier General George Standard, a first rate commander, made good progress against Battery 3. The position was held by Company C of the 44th Virginia Battalion, which hailed from Lunenburg County. On June 14 they had only just begun artillery practice and on June 15 they found themselves in combat. Lieutenant George E. Smith, seeing the position would be overrun, ordered a withdrawal, leaving the artillery behind. The 25th Massachusetts captured two smoothbore Napoleon artillery guns which they turned around and fired into the fleeing Rebels. Smith escaped to Battery 2 where he helped repulse Martindale’s attack on the position. With Stedman’s failure, Standard’s position was exposed to flanking fire and he dared not advance any further, sending only two regiments of skirmishers out. All told, Martindale lost about 184 men in his attack.[ii]

<Image Attack on the Dimmock Line here>

In the center, Brooks’ men rushed onward, with Marston’s brigade shouting as it moved forward. 189 men from the 13th New Hampshire Infantry scaled the dirt walls and attacked Battery 5 directly. Losses were considerable, with Lieutenant S. Millet Thompson going down with a wound. Still, the bottom of a ravine was reached. Sturdivant had his guns loaded with double canister, a powerful, shotgun-like ammunition that would shred a heavy assault line. Here, Smith’s tactics paid off.  Sturdivant did not dare fire his artillery into such a thin line so the New Hampshire troops were soon upon his gunners, quickly wounding two lieutenants. Meanwhile, the 118th New York took the ravine. Just to the south, Captain William J. Hunt led one-hundred men from the 117th New York into a breach and hit the Rebel rear. The Confederates panicked. Lieutenant Colonel James C. Councill, commander of the 26th Virginia, promptly capitulated. Sturdivant, finding himself surrounded surrendered four guns. Sturdivant openly lamented that his men were “captured by a Yankee skirmish line.”[iii] In total 227 Rebels, including sixteen officers, capitulated, including Peter V. Batte. The flag of the 26th Virginia fell into Union hands, along with five artillery pieces. Among the dead were militiamen, their civilian dress being a rarity in a war dominated by veterans. For the 13th New Hampshire, it was perhaps their finest hour in the war, with Captain George N. Julian, who led the assault, accepting the surrender of eight officers. Major Beatty of the 26th Virginia was so impressed that he gave Julian his sword and told him to carry into battle as if it were his own. Meanwhile, at Pocahontas Bridge, roughy two and a half miles west of Jordan’s Hill, Lieutenant Hoy heard loud cheering and surmised that Jordan’s Hill had fallen. He rushed north to his unit to inform them of the city’s peril and prepare them for battle.[iv]

Bell’s brigade now made a massed attack.  The 97th Pennsylvania, leading the attack, found the assault to be an easy contest, mostly because Smith’s barrage had pinned down the Confederates. Company C of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery had been particularly effective in this role. Still, some Confederates escaped the confusion and formed a line of battle near the Jordan House. They went behind partially built earthworks that had been abandoned in 1862 in favor of the Dimmock Line. Brook’s skirmishers were not strong enough to carry on an effective pursuit, and Bell’s follow up regiments arrived only slowly. Captain Nathan D. Stoodley of the 13th New Hampshire wanted to turn the captured guns on the retreating Rebels but Sturdivant refused to hand over the fuses. Sergeant John F. Gibbs, who had served in the artillery, did find some fuses, but they instead decided to fire the guns into Petersburg. Colonel Guy V. Henry’s brigade followed Bell’s brigade but did not press too far forward, although they did capture two more artillery pieces. This was a bit surprising since Henry was a young and aggressive officer. Some of this was due to the terrain, which broke up the heavy battle line as it moved towards Jordan’s Hill and led to confusion. Curtis’ brigade, which was supposed to follow and exploit any success won by Bell and Henry, could not even get passed the mass of Yankees now occupying Jordan’s Hill. Marston paused once the hill fell. His brigade took almost no losses, with the 98th New York reporting only four men wounded in the advance. This only confirmed that Smith’s reinforced skirmish line was a shrewd tactic. Unfortunately neither he nor Brooks nor Ames had planned on how to exploit the fall of Jordan’s Hill.[v]

Farther south along the line, USCT regiments moved after being told that Brooks’ attack had begun. From right to left the 1st, 22nd, and 4th USCT were in the lead, with Smith’s loose order formation ahead of a heavy battle line. Behind these regiments were the 5th and 6th USCT, arrayed in a heavy battle line. Although the 1st USCT managed to quickly storm Battery 6, the attack on Battery 7 was more  difficult. The men had to sweep over a field covered with abatis and both the 5th and 6th USCT moved too slowly. Two companies of the 5th USCT refused Holman’s order to advance in support of the 1st USCT. Holman instead took the two companies, along with two companies from the 1st USCT, on a march to hit Battery 9. At first the USCT men traded volleys with the Confederates and losses were high. Major John Cook and four companies of the 22nd USCT managed to reach the base of Battery 7. The Confederates could not depress their guns. Cook’s men slid to the north, entering a weak spot in the lines and taking Battery 7. Meanwhile the other USCT regiments wavered but then Hinks and Duncan ordered a charge. Elements of the 4th USCT surged ahead climbing up the steep entrenchments while yelling battle cries.  The first man over the top was Lieutenant William H. Appleton; he later won the Congressional Medal of Honor for this feat. Among those with Appleton was Christian Fleetwood. A free black, he was a businessman and aspiring writer who planned to immigrate to Liberia. He had escaped a lynch mob during the 1861 Baltimore riots and joined the 4th USCT when it was formed in 1863. Fleetwood recalled that his regiment “swept like a tornado over the works.”[vi] Then from the rear Cook’s men attacked. Together they overwhelmed the 46th Virginia, already in disarray due to the wounding of their commander, Colonel Randolph Harrison.  He had been shot in the neck and did not recover until October. The 1st USCT captured Battery 6. The Confederate infantry fled, leaving three artillery guns behind.

The USCT regiments did not pause. They pressed south towards Batteries 8 and 9. Under heavy fire, the 1st and 22nd USCT swept towards Battery 8.  Kiddoo, his blood up, ordered an attack against the advice of Lieutenant Colonel Elias Wright, commander of the 1st USCT. In the attack, made a swampy ravine and then uphill, the 22nd USCT nearly broke. A brave charge by the regiment’s color guard and an attack by the 1st USCT gave them heart. Battery 8 fell and with it another artillery gun. A Confederate counterattack was turned back and Kiddoo might have struck at Battery 9\ in the chaos. However, Kiddoo’s men had expended their ammunition so he had the captured gun turned on the Confederates. The 4th USCT, now reformed and aided by the 6th USCT, pushed on to Battery 9, now under attack by Holman’s four company force. At this point the 34th and 46th Virginia, as well as various artillerymen and militia, broke for the rear and abandoned Batteries 9, 10, and 11 before the attack petered out. Although the 46th Virginia lost only twenty-six men in the attack, among the wounded was the regiment’s commander. The 34th Virginia suffered more heavily, with forty men being taken prisoner. As the Virginia troops withdrew, another artillery gun was captured. In two hours of nearly constant fighting, the USCT regiments, relatively green before June 15, had carried nearly a mile of enemy trenches. They cheered their victory and yelled “Fort Pillow!”[vii] Captain John McMurray of the 6th USCT then led a picket line forward when his men found a wagon of ammunition being brought up to Battery 9. The black Wagoner reported that there were no Confederate troops along the Prince George Court House Road. The path to Petersburg was wide open.

Hinks’ men had fought well in their baptism of fire and June 15 was among the finest hours that the USCT would enjoy during the war. Captain John Adams of the 19th Massachusetts recorded that “it had been said that the negro would not fight, but here we found them dead on the field side by side with the rebels they had killed. The stock of the negro as a soldier was high in the market.” [viii] Soon word of the valor shown by Hinks’ men was spreading throughout the Army of the Potomac, still marching towards Petersburg. Private Gilman of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery said “Bully for the Neg.”[ix] Smith, who had been dismissive of them beforehand, praised them highly in his official report. He also personally thanked the USCT troops and declared that they had “no superiors as soldiers.” Rawlins, who was at City Point on June 15, now dropped his opposition to using the USCT in pitched battles. Petersburg was the first time black troops had been used in the bloody fields of Virginia and they had exceeded expectations. The battle would remain one of the proudest moments for the USCT. Unsurprisingly, their exploits were celebrated in the North. The front page of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured a dramatic Edward Mullen engraving of USCT regiments dragging off the captured cannon from Baylor’s Farm. All in all, the stock of the USCT regiments had climbed in the army. Ironically, this triumph came on the same day that the House of Representatives failed to pass the thirteen amendment, which would have abolished slavery in its entirety.[x]

Hinks’ losses for the entire day were around 600, the most severe in the XVIII Corps.[xi] George Ulmer, a drummer boy in the 8th Maine, recalled the USCT assault that evening was “one of the grandest and most awful sights I ever saw… The men seemed to fall like blades of grass before a machine, but it did not stop them…”[xii] In addition, contests between Confederates and black soldiers were bitter affairs. While much of the 26th Virginia saw fit to surrender to Brooks’ skirmish line, the Confederates opposing Hinks’ division fought on for over two hours. Hinks’ USCT regiments went into battle yelling “Remember Fort Pillow,” which could not have encouraged the Virginians to surrender. After the initial rush, some black soldiers sauntered towards Jordan’s Hill and attacked Confederate prisoners, with at least one Southerner being bayoneted to death. The 117th New York and 13th New Hampshire drove off the USCT regiments, possibly preventing a morbid repeat of Fort Pillow in reverse. On the Confederate side, wild stories spread about USCT atrocities. One such rumor reached Major Patrick Henry Fitzhugh of the 26th Virginia. He heard that his son, Color Sergeant R. Allen Fitzhugh, had been murdered by black troops after he surrendered. Fitzhugh recklessly exposed himself through the rest of the battle. When cornered on June 17 he refused to surrender and used his sword to hack at the Union troops, crossing Federal bayonets with his saber.[xiii] He was killed, not knowing that his son was actually alive, and would survive his time in the Union’s notoriously bad prisons. It was a doubly sad loss, for Fitzhugh had been with the 26th Virginia since its inception.

It was not all horror though. Hinks reported seeing two wounded USCT privates helping a severely wounded Confederate to the rear. When the 6th USCT took Battery 9 the only Rebel they found was a dead teenager with long fair hair. The men were moved and buried the boy with great care. Regardless, the severity of the fighting between the USCT and their Virginia opponents stood in contrast to all other engagements on June 15. The reasons for the hard fighting was best summarized by the reporter Charles Carleton Coffin after the war: “They had been slaves; they stood face to face with their former masters, or with their representatives. The flag in front of them waving in the morning breeze was the emblem of oppression; the banner above them was the flag of the free.”[xiv] The fighting of June 15 only confirmed that encounters between Confederate and USCT troops would always be desperate affairs.[xv]

Over one mile of entrenchments were now in Smith’s possession, along with over 250 prisoners and sixteen cannons. Yet the sun was setting and the situation still looked dangerous to Smith. In the growing gloom of twilight, Smith made no effort to advance into the tangled ravines, hills, and woods that lay before him. Rebel skirmishers were everywhere. The moon was full, but Smith believed that this mattered very little in the woods, where his men would get confused and likely shoot each other. In addition, his men were tired and he feared that the black troops were so jubilant with victory that they might rush into an ambush. Ammunition was also running low as the 1st and 22nd USCT had been unable to press forward due to a lack of bullets. Smith was also sure that Lee was on the way. He had captured men who claimed to be from Hoke’s division, indicating that more Rebel troops had arrived at Petersburg. An attack on the city might become a massacre.

Butler informed Smith around 7:20 p.m. that no more Confederate reinforcements had arrived in Petersburg and that he ought to press on. However, one of Butler’s signal officers, Maurice Lamprey, recorded in his log book that he ordered Smith to entrench that night, adding to the confused situation. Butler spent most of his time on June 15 at the signal station so it is likely he personally gave the order. In addition, Smith’s men had suffered heavier losses than he expected. While no accurate count exists for June 15, Martindale seems to have lost 300, Brooks and Ames roughly 200, Kautz 100, and Hinks nearly 600. Smith likely lost around 1,400 men, although Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana reported the losses to be at 750. Considering their numerical advantage, these were rather high losses.[xvi] The 4th and 22nd USCT alone had suffered a combined loss of over 250 men. Myron Smith reported that the 1st USCT had lost ten officers and 146 men, mostly in the attack on the Dimmock Line. In Hinks’ division only the 5th USCT had been relatively unengaged, having lost only thirty-five men. Among them was Captain Orlando Brockway. He was mortally wounded but his wife, who was teaching former slaves to read in a nearby camp, was at his side before he died.[xvii]

[i]           B. S. De Forest, Random Sketches and Wandering Thoughts (Albany: Avery Herrick, 1866), 245; Denny, 346; Thompson, 384-85.

[ii]           Denny, 347; W. P. Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers Infantry During the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Company, 1883), 332; George W. Ward,  History of the Second Pennsylvania Veteran Heavy Artillery: (112th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers) from 1861-1866 (Philadelphia, George W. Ward, 1904), 64.

[iii]          Thompson, 390.

[iv]          Thompson, 386-89.

[v]           Isaiah Price, History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-65 (Philadelphia: Isaiah Price, 1875), 291.

[vi]          Edward G. Longacre, A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United Stares Colored Infantry, 1863-1864 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003), 91.

[vii]         Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 238.

[viii]         John G.B. Adams, Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment (Boston: Wright & Porter, 1899), 102.

[ix]           Walter S. Gilman, Life in Virginia  or Thirty Four Days in Grant’s Army In the Field (Bangor, ME: n.p., 1864), 4.

[x]           Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War: With the Leaders at Washington and in the Field in the Sixties (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), 220.

[xi]          Estimated from William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 and Livermore’s Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America.

[xii]         George T.  Ulmer, Adventures and Reminiscences of a Volunteer; or, A Drummer Boy from Maine. (Chicago: s.n., 1892), 45.

[xiii]         The details of Fitzhugh’s death are obscure. Alexander Wiatt places him as dying at Battery 16 on June 17, but the records show him dying on June 18 at Jordan’s Hill. If so, he was killed after being taken prisoner. He was not with the 26th Virginia when Page was killed on June 17 otherwise he would have led the regiment after Page’s death.

[xiv]         Coffin, Four Years of Fighting, 356.

[xv]          Coffin, Four Years of Fighting, 363; Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 35.

[xvi]         Fox places the losses for ten of Smith’s regiments at 808, but most likely these were losses for those regiments over the course of the entire battle.

[xvii]        Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 380; William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 (Albany:  Albany Publishing, 1889), 55; Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 35-6; Longarce, Army of Amateurs, 152; Price, 291; Smith, From Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler, 25, 98-9, 101; Stearns, 43; Trudeau, The Last Citidel, 41; Washington, 44;  Official Records, XL, Pt.2, 83.


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