Category Archives: Petersburg

April 2, 1865: “As near as I can judge I expended about 1,000 rounds of ammunition” bombarding Petersburg’s lines

Victory at Five Forks on April 1, 1865 allowed Federal forces to sever the last major supply line – the South Side Railroad – into Petersburg from the west. With that, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant put in motion his plan to shatter the Petersburg defenses.  Shortly after receiving news from Five Forks, Grant ordered a general bombardment of the Confederate lines.  This preparatory artillery fire started the last massed bombardment of the war (saving, perhaps how you want to measure things, the siege operations at Fort Blakely in Alabama).  And it was certainly one of the war’s largest.

For the final week of the Siege of Petersburg, Major-General Henry Hunt reported the Army of the Potomac had 202 cannon in the field batteries and 188 in the siege artillery.  These ranged from 100-pdr Parrott Rifles down to 24-pdr Coehorn mortars. And that figure does not include the artillery supporting the Army of the James or the Cavalry Corps, which was operating detached.  These weapons were spread out along the lines from Richmond, through Bermuda Hundred, all the way around Petersburg.  A mass of firepower and a tool to pry open the lock at the doors of the Confederate capital.

Grant’s orders were to commence a general bombardment along all the lines at 10 p.m. on April 1.  This was the spectacle observed by Colonel Charles Wainwright that night from Five Forks.  The artillerist maintained that bombardment until around 1 a.m. on the 2nd.  That was only the introductory verses to the main chorus to start later that morning.  At 4 a.m. the Federal batteries resumed firing to cover an infantry assault.  From that point on, the bombardment was general along all the lines.

Brigadier-General Henry Abbot, commanding the siege train, recorded:

My artillery was hotly engaged in the battles resulting in the capture of Petersburg, and in the demonstrations made to prevent General Mahone from leaving the Bermuda Hundred line, firing 5,560 rounds during April 1 and 2.

In perspective, this firing was more than on any three days during the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in the fall of 1863.  It was more than during two weeks of firing during the height of the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in July 1864.  And keep in mind that Abbot had a number of large caliber weapons in action – Parrotts and mortars in particular – as were used against Fort Sumter. But Abbot had a whole lot more field-caliber weapons in his batteries.

Brigadier-General John C. Tidball, commanding the Ninth Corps Artillery, noted:

At 4 a.m., the hour appointed for the assault upon the enemy’s works in front of Fort Sedgwick, the artillery upon the whole line promptly opened and was immediately replied to in the most vigorous manner by the enemy, and it is probable that never since the invention of gunpowder has such a cannonade taken place.

Tidball went on to say, “Fourteen thousand two hundred and fifty-one rounds is the amount of artillery ammunition expended during the engagement.” Think about that in terms of the logistical arrangements required just to get those projectiles and powder to City Point… and Tidball’s numbers are just for the Ninth Corps, and not covering that of the other three corps in the Army of the Potomac, or any of the Army of the James.  (Though I would point out that Wainwright’s Fifth Corps guns were silent on April 2.  They had fired their last shots in anger, and of the war, on March 31 at White Oak Road.)

In his report, Tidball highlighted the actions of the Seventh Maine Light Artillery, under Captain Adelbert B. Twitchell.  With four 12-pdr Napoleons, Twitchell’s gunners manned Fort Sedgwick.


Twitchell’s battery contributed to the firing started during the night of April 1 by firing one round per gun every five minutes from 11 p.m. until midnight.  The battery resumed firing at the time appointed for the larger April 2 bombardment:

At 4 a.m., April 2, at the signal from Fort Avery, all my guns opened, firing rapidly for fifteen minutes. Ceased firing for a time as the infantry was gathering for the charge in our front. The rebel line was carried just before the break of the day.  The enemy threw shell and canister quite rapidly for a few moments, but gave too high elevations, as nearly all the missiles passed over our works.

Twitchell then sent some of his artillerymen forward to work cannons captured in the Confederate lines. The men, along with detachments from all along the Federal lines, serviced six Napoleons and two 3-inch rifles.  But Twitchell’s work from Fort Sedgwick was not over that day:

From Fort Sedgwick we observed two or three charges by the rebels during the day, and my guns sent shell and case-shot into their ranks with effect. About 8 a.m. I ordered that one 3-inch Parrot gun of Battery D, Pennsylvania Artillery, be taken from Battery 21 and placed on the left flank of my guns in Sedgwick, which, in connection with the left gun of my battery, could cover the left flank of Curtin’s brigade, Potter’s division.

These guns were well served and did good service during the day in checking the rebels, constantly threatening the left flank.  My men worked without intermission during the entire day of April 2 in serving their guns and in receiving and sending ammunition to the line occupied by our troops….

As near as I can judge I expended about 1,000 rounds of ammunition during the night of April 1 and the day of April 2….

Though Twichell’s tally of rounds fired likely included some of those sent forward to the captured guns, a thousand rounds is a large quantity by any measure.  And those were fired over two periods, accounting for somewhere between 18 and 20 hours total.

We often rush past the last assaults on the Petersburg line in haste as we read through in our rush to Appomattox.  But it must be remembered that the Confederates gave up the lines at Petersburg only after displaying the same stubbornness seen on so many battlefields earlier in the war.  To overcome the Confederate lines, the Federals used artillery on a scale seldom seen up to that time in the history of warfare.  If it was not, as Tidball seemed to think, the greatest cannonade ever, then it was high up on the list.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, pages 659-661, 663, 1072-3, and 1076-7.)

April 1, 1865: “This has been the most momentous day of the war so far”: Five Forks, Sheridan, Warren, and what Wainwright saw

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright was right place to witness many things on April 1, 1865.  And he minced no words as to his emotions that Saturday on which a campaign turned:

White Oak Road, April 1, 1865, Saturday: This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory. But to begin at the beginning and tell what I saw myself. During the night, that is, soon after five o’clock and before daylight, I was awakened, and on joining [Major-General Gouverneur] Warren, he informed me that he was going to move to [Major-General Phil] Sheridan’s support with all his infantry; that [Major-General Romeyn] Ayres’s division had already gone down the plank, and he was just starting across country with the other two to try for the flank of the force opposed to Sheridan….

Thus Wainwright, and the Federal Fifth Corps, moved towards Five Forks on the morning of April 1, 1865.  Around 1 p.m. that afternoon, Warren called on Wainwright to support the flanking attack with two batteries.  The infantry was not, at that moment, joined with the Confederate line, but closing upon it.  Wainwright moved with two of his New York batteries.

When I got up to Warren the whole of the Fifth Corps was just about to attack at this angle, and along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot of the White Oak road, Ayres’s division held the left, [Brigadier-General Frederick] Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally.  [Major-General Samuel] Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and [Major-General Charles] Griffin in rear of Crawford. Much of this I have, of course, learned since, mostly from Ayres, who gave me a clear account of the dispositions.

When I reached Warren, he was in conversation with General Sheridan, close behind Ayres’s second line. Our skirmishers were just engaging, the men beginning to advance, and rebel bullets coming over our way somewhat thick.  I waited several minutes for Sheridan to get through what he was saying before I spoke to Warren.  As there was nothing for me to do, I rode back out of the way of stray bullets, to an open ridge south of the road and not far from a small church, called Gravel Run Church, where our hospital was being established.

As our men passed through a narrow belt of woods, I could not see the actual charge on the works, only the smoke of the battle. The cheers of our men, however, told me that all was going well, and long files of prisoners coming in soon shewed that the works were carried….

Wainwright estimated, from the time he left Warren until the first prisoners came down the road, only twenty minutes had elapsed.  As for those prisoners:

These men all moved along cheerfully, without one particle of sullenness which formerly characterized them under similar circumstances. They joked with our men along the line and I repeatedly head them say, “We are coming back into the Union, boys, we are coming back into the Union.” It was a joyful and an exciting sight, seeming to say that the war was about over, the great rebellion nearly quelled.

Wainwright proceeded to Five Forks itself where an administrative duty became his task of the day.

At the Forks, I found two guns, three-inch, just in their works, and [Colonel Alexander] Pennington sitting on one of them.  I stopped here and had a talk with him and several other cavalry officers, formerly light battery commanders.  They told me that they had charged the works at this point and carried them with any number of prisoners. While there Crawford came down the Ford road, from the north, looking for Warren, and told me that there were more guns up the road which his men had taken.

Wainwright went up the road to find three more 3-inch rifles. Always concerned about propriety and not wishing to slight anyone’s honor, Wainwright didn’t want to take possession of any guns until everyone got their due credit.

I turned back and pushed along the White Oak road to find Warren. I must have gone at least two miles, and about one mile west of the end of the rebel works before I found him.  It was growing dark, the sun having already set; the bugles were sounding the recall; the pursuit was over, and the divisions getting together for the night. I told the General about the guns, and asked if I was to look after their removal.  For this he referred me to Sheridan, as he said there might be some jealousy on the part of the cavalry.

We rode back together looking for Sheridan, and found him with his staff about a fire near the west end of the rebel works. Here I waited while General Warren had a short conversation with Sheridan. Then I dismounted, reported to Sheridan the number of guns I had found, and asked if he wished me to remove them; at the same time stating that Pennington claimed to have captured at least two of them.  Sheridan was very pleasant, said that there was glory enough for all, and wished me to look after the guns.

With that, Wainwright rode off to tend to those trophies.  And note that Wainwright places Warren and Sheridan at the the latter’s headquarters apparently having a even tempered conversation.  Leaving Sheridan, Wainwright proceeded to catch up with Warren:

… Warren had ridden on with Bankhead. When I overtook them, they were both dismounted, and Warren talking earnestly. I also got off my horse, told Warren what directions Sheridan had given me, and inquired where the corps headquarters would be for the night. Warren replied that General Sheridan had just informed him that he had relieved him from the command of the corps, and turned it over to Griffin; that he had given no reason for doing, but referred him to General Grant, to whom he was to report for orders.

Wainwright was puzzled by the turn of events.  But his reaction goes to demonstrate some of the personality of Warren:

I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was. The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to. But in that case he would have been relieved at once instead of it being put off until the fight was all over.  Besides which I had left them just at the commencement of the battle in apparently amicable talk.

Not until the next day did Wainwright learn the justification for Warren’s removal.  Crawford’s division had ventured too far to the right.  After sending staff officers to reign in Crawford, Warren went to the flank himself.  While tending to that task personally, Warren was conspicuously absent from the corps headquarters when Sheridan inquired “Where is Warren?”  Wainwright repeated the opinion of Brigadier-General Joseph Bartlett in that Crawford was to blame for the mix-up.  “[Bartlett] referred to Spotsylvania and one or two other cases where, by his bungling or what not, Crawford had brought him great trouble.”

But what was done was done.  Wainwright expressed his opinion of the new corps commander:

I do not exactly like the idea of serving under Griffin; we have never got along well together, and I do not like him.  It was one o’clock when I got to bed; up at that time and later there was a steady and very heavy cannonade kept up from dark along the old lines in front of Petersburg. We can see the shells burst at times and watch the flight of some of the big bombs.  We start again at daylight.

And they did start again that next day.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 510-5.)

“These forts must have their artillery”: Hunt directs battle handover and transition to maneuver operations at Petersburg

150 years ago, the ninth and final offensive was underway at Petersburg.  Brett Schulte has several posts up on Beyond the Crater discussing the details of this operation – including some excellent map resources.  In particular, one of his posts covered the period from March 24 to 28, in which Federal leaders worked out the details of the offensive and began movement.  The movement boiled down to a shift of forces to the left.  Among those units moving to “jump off” positions for this offensive was the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac at that time commanded by Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys.  As the Second Corps moved, elements of the Army of the James would assume positions on the siege lines.  In short, the Second Corps would perform a battle handover to the Army of the James, preparatory to the offensive operations.

What is a battle handover?  According to the book it is a variety of “tactical enabling operation” – meaning an operation designed to facilitate a separate offensive or defensive operation.  In this case a flanking maneuver on the Confederate right.  In order to get the Second Corps in position to participate in the flanking maneuver, Humphreys had to disengage from the line he currently held, keeping the Confederates in place.  Then the Army of the James had to occupy the position formerly held by Second Corps and assume the mission of confronting the Confederate line.

Sounds simple, but battle handovers are notoriously complex. There are many moving parts.   Two soldiers cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  Likewise two regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps cannot hold the same point at the same time.  So part of the “choreography” is to rotate formations, unit by unit, points on the line.  Nowhere is that more difficult than with crew-served weapons… or in the Civil War conventions, the artillery.

In the Petersburg siege lines, the artillery pieces were in place to dominate sections of the trenches.  Each gun tube had a specific field of fire to address a particular tactical need – be that an approach the enemy might use or an enfilade of an enemy position.  Moving a gun would require repeated surveys, sighting, and registration.  Leaving the guns in place could ease the process of battle handover.

That is exactly what Major-General Henry Hunt had in mind on March 28, 1865 when he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John Hazard, Second Corps Artillery Chief:

General [Horatio] Wright says you propose to withdraw your guns from Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson to-morrow morning. General Meade says that General Wright will hold the Sixth Corps here to-morrow at least, and these forts must have their artillery. Arrangements must be made accordingly. The forts on your line, A, B, C, D, E, you report March 26 as having twenty guns; General Ord can replace sixteen. You reported Welch, Gregg, and Sampson twelve guns; sixteen are thus required for the lines.

The section of the line in question, Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson, formed a “refuse” on the Federal left flank, and thus were rather important shielding the preparations.  To keep up appearances, and retain the pressure to prevent Confederates from shifting their forces, Hunt wanted the same number of guns in those forts after the battle handover.


On the surface, Hunt is pointing out a mismatch of forces.  The Second Corps plan was to remove thirty-six guns off the line (in the batteries and forts) along with a dozen surplus weapons.  The Army of the James, wold bring in sixteen guns to fill the void.  That math does not work.  So Hunt turned to creative math to resolve the problem… specifically asking Hazard to organize his artillery to support the planned maneuvers and leave the remainder behind:

You report forty-eight guns in your corps, of these I understand that twelve are of surplus sections. If these are all sent back it will take twenty-eight guns from your artillery, leaving you but five batteries, and General Meade directs that rather than strip the forts you take but twenty guns, five batteries, with your corps. I wish you, therefore, to arrange to keep the guns in Forts Sampson, Welch, and Gregg. If you can put two surplus sections in, you will keep your six batteries with the corps. The batteries you propose to Send to Colonel Tidball will therefore be left, four guns with General Ord and twelve with General Wright, which will remain with him until the Sixth Corps line is abandoned, and will then report to General Tidball, unless otherwise ordered. These arrangements must be made at once, and you will report to me what batteries move with your corps, and that provision is made to leave the sixteen guns on the line as directed.

Very creative math.  But what supports this is the transition to a new phase of operations. Sitting in the siege lines, the Second Corps, as had all the Federal formations, had acquired extra guns to meet specific needs on the lines.  Now facing the prospect of quick maneuvers in pursuit of the Confederates, should all turn well, the Second Corps only needed five or six batteries.

Hazard responded promptly on this matter, but with a slight modification to the design:

I have arranged to leave four guns in Fort Gregg: four in Fort Sampson, and four in Battery A, and to take six batteries with me. If General Ord brings with him sixteen guns it will be sufficient to arm the line to the left of Battery A. Shall take two of my guns from Fort Welch, leaving four in it belonging to Sixth Corps. I trust this arrangement will be satisfactory. Shall take with me Battery B, Rhode Island; B, New Jersey; K, Fourth United States; M, First New Hampshire; Tenth Massachusetts, and Eleventh New York, leaving on the line, in command of Capt. C. A. Clark, Twelfth New York, Sixth Maine, and F, First Pennsylvania. Please answer by telegraph as soon as convenient if this arrangement meets with your approbation.

While not exactly as Hunt specified, the arrangement would allow Hazard to retain some organizational integrity within the artillery brigade supporting the Second Corps.  Please note that of those six batteries retained with the Second Corps, only one of them had been under Hazard’s lead during July 1-3, 1863.  Little wonder after the many reorganizations of the Army of the Potomac during the intervening time.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 227-8.)

General Lee on desertions: “… the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

On March 27, 1865, General Robert E. Lee sent a report to the Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge.  The report addressed a vital, but always sensitive topic for any army – desertions:

I have the honor to report as the number of desertions from the 9th to the 18th, both inclusive, 1,061. This embraces full reports from the infantry, but only partial reports from the artillery and cavalry, which would increase the number considerably. The largest number of desertions was from the First Corps, General Longstreet’s, Pickett’s division having lost 512 men while moving recently. I hope that some of his men only availed themselves of the opportunity to visit their homes and will return. But the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future. I do not know what can be done to put a stop to it. …

1,000 desertions in ten days was a serious loss from the rolls.  At that rate, the Army of Northern Virginia and other forces defending Richmond and Petersburg would simply wither away regardless of any effort by the Federals. Though Lee did explain the high desertion rate noting the preponderance of numbers from one division.  He saw it as aberration. Or perhaps more accurately, he hoped it was an aberration.

The mention of Major-General George Pickett’s division brings to mind the oft used prop that desertions came more so from the ranks of the deep south, which had been most affected by the recent Federal campaigns.  Pickett’s division was all Virginian.

Lee continued with a breakdown of what he saw as contributing causes… and as a good leader will, offer solutions:

General Longstreet reports that many of the Georgia troops have deserted to join local commands authorized to be raised in that State, and that they are encouraged to do so by the officers of those commands. He mentions particularly, on the report of Brig. Gen. G. T. Anderson, the case of a Captain Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment in Anderson’s brigade, who was retired on account of a wound and received authority to raise a command of light-duty men and persons not liable to conscription, for the purpose of arresting deserters in Brooks County, Ga. I inclose the papers that you may see the whole case. I have always opposed granting such authority, for the reason that it causes desertion from the regular service. I recommend that all such authorizations be revoked and that measures be taken to bring officers who have been guilty of such conduct to justice. It has been one of the greatest evils of the service since the beginning of the war, and has caused the loss of a much greater number of men than have ever been brought into service by means of such special organizations.

The two enclosures mentioned by Lee were reports from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and Brigadier-General George T. Anderson.  Lee had summarized Longstreet’s observations about recruiting practices in his report.  So I’ll not repeat them here.  Anderson named names in his report:

I believe that some at least of the officers who have received permission to raise companies of disabled men and non-conscripts, are abusing their authority and offering inducements to our soldiers to desert, make their way home, and join their companies. From all the evidence in my possession, I fully believe Capt. T. J. Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment Infantry, now of Brooks County, Ga. (and retired on account of amputation of leg), has been guilty of the above serious charge. I cannot produce evidence to convict him before a court-martial, but I am perfectly satisfied of his guilt.

Anderson went on to detail letters received by a private in Anderson’s Brigade which demonstrated the efforts to recruit the men from the ranks.

Longstreet’s solution for this matter?  Make this a punishable offense:

I would suggest, therefore, the publication of a general order warning all officers or persons authorized to raise local organizations against receiving such deserters or in anyway harboring them, and cautioning all such parties that they shall be punished for such crimes under the 22d and 23d Articles of War.

Longstreet, however, also touched upon another potential manpower drain:

Another growing evil seems to trouble us now in the shape of applications to raise negro companies, regiments, brigades, &c. The desire for promotion seems to have taken possession of our army, and it seems that nearly all of the officers and men think that they could gain a grade or two or more if allowed to go home. I presume that many may try to go merely because they get furloughs.

By Longstreet’s estimate, the effort to put more men in the ranks – a desperate attempt in this case considering what the Confederacy was founded upon – was going to work out in a counter-productive way.

No where in the correspondence did Lee or any other leader mention the matter of morale.  Some (shall I say jaded?) will interpret that to presume all was well in the ranks and morale remained high.  However, Lee never openly discussed the morale of the army in official correspondence that winter.  Indeed you’ll find most generals, then and now, avoid mention of that topic in written correspondence unless to say morale is in the positive measure.

With the discussion of what motivated the desertions, the least common denominator in all is that desertion is an individual act.  We might draw a lot of inferences by examination and speculation.  But reality is that deserters didn’t fill out a “where did we fail you?” survey as they leave the ranks.  Nor were deserters apt to openly discuss, at length, the reasons they walked away.

Regardless of the motivation, the hard truth is that desertions were rapidly eating away at the strength of the Confederate armies at the close of March 1865.  Maybe not at the 100 per day rate which prompted Lee’s report, but at least in significant numbers to cause alarm.  If the Confederate armies stood still, men deserted.  If the Confederate armies marched, men deserted.  Didn’t matter if the man was killed or wounded in combat, or deserted from the ranks, the loss was still a negative on the returns.  In the larger context, the Confederacy had but one card left in hand to play – its armies.  And the high desertion rates served to reduce the value of that card.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 1353-1355.)

Petersburg 150th Events

Petersburg National Battlefield has posted their 2015 schedule of events.  These include a good number sesquicentennial observances.  Some of those which caught my eye, as specifically timed to 150th events:

150th Anniversary of The Battle of Hatcher’s Run

Date: Thursday, February 5, 2015, 3:00 pm
Location: Five Forks Contact Station, 9840 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie, VA

Lecture will commemorate the first of the 1865 battles aimed at cutting off supply lines to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and bringing about the fall of Petersburg.

The Saturday following (February 7th), the park hosts a set of talks.  One focuses on the death of “Sallie,” the mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry in the battle of Hatcher’s Run.  With the talk is a demonstration by the 544th Military Working Dog Detachment from Fort Lee.  “See the evolution of military dogs from mascots to modern day working dogs.”  (I don’t think that angle has ever been worked for Civil War interpretation… good one!)  The second talk, scheduled for 2 PM, as Emanuel Dabney discussing “how Confederate soldiers were dealing with the war in what turned out to be the last months of service for the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Civil War 150th : Battles of Ft. Stedman and Jones Farm Living History Weekend

Date: Saturday, March 21, 2015
Time:  Ft. Stedman 10:00 am – 11:00 am;  Jones Farm 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Locations: Ft. Stedman Tour Stop #5 Eastern Front, 5001 Siege Rd. Petersburg VA; and Jones Farm Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA.

The weekend event matches to the “real time” observance which falls on the following Wednesday:

Civil War 150th: Battles of Ft. Stedman and Jones Farm Real Time Tours

Date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Time: Ft. Stedman 5:00 am -8:00 am;  Jones Farm 3:00 pm -3:45 pm
Locations: Ft. Stedman Tour Stop #5 Eastern Front, 5001 Siege Rd. Petersburg VA; and Jones Farm Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA

The following weekend (March 28-29) feature living history displays at Five Forks, Fort Gregg, and Hopewell (in conjunction with a panel discussion about the River Queen Conference).  There is also a night-time tour of Five Forks on March 28, 6-8 pm.

Then over the first days of April, the observances come as thick as the action of 1865:

Faces of Five Forks
Date: Wednesday, April 1, 2015, 2:30 – 3:30 pm
Location: Five Forks Contact Station, 9840 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie, VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough Real Time Tour
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 5:30 am – 6:30 am
Location: Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough: Ft. Mahone Commemorative Ceremony
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Location: Ft. Mahone & Pennsylvania Monument on Wakefield Drive, Petersburg VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough: Battle of Ft. Gregg Commemorative Ceremony
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Location: Tour Stop #4 Western Front, Sampson Rd. & 7th Ave. Dinwiddie Co. VA

See the Petersburg NPS website for more details on these events.

Couple these events along with those occurring at Appomattox starting on April 8 and you see the last spring of the Sesquicentennial will be a busy one!


Witnesses to a disaster: Napoleons (and an Ordnance Rifle) captured at Ream’s Station, August 25, 1864

150 years ago today, the Army of the Potomac suffered one of its worst defeats of the war at Second Ream’s Station.  I see Timothy Orr has a piece up looking at the 14th Connecticut in the battle.  And Civil War Daily Gazette has a nice overview for those unfamiliar with the battle.

Years ago when visiting the battlefield for the first time, I made a note the battle deserved a proper sesquicentennial post.  In particular I wanted to discuss how the Confederates were able to maneuver in front of, and over, the Federal earthworks.  A grand defiance in the face of the “stalemated” battlefield you read of in general histories of the war.  But… alas… I must plead the date slipped away and my writing hours were too few for the task to be accomplished.

One aspect of the battle that I’d highlight is the performance of the Federal artillery.  Or I should say – lack of dominance on the battlefield.  Partly due to poor positioning, but largely just a symptom of a generally poor performance by the force overall, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery had a bad day all around.  At the end of the day the Confederates boasted the capture of nine pieces of artillery.  And we know exactly what guns they captured, thanks to Major J. G. Barnwell, Chief of Ordnance, Army of Northern Virginia:


Of that list there are some survivors around today.  Start with Revere Copper 12-pdr Napoleon #253:

Petersburg 201

Today it is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Petersburg Visitor center.

And #95 from Henry N. Hooper is at Manassas, near the 14th Brooklyn Memorial:

Manassas 11 Aug 12 030

Cyrus Alger 12-pdr Napoleon #45 has a home today at Pea Ridge, Arkansas:

pea ridge 273

Ames 12-pdr Napoleon #55 is today at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, but I don’t have a current photo of the gun.

Of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, #533 is at Gettysburg, guarding the wall near the Angle:

Gettysburg 4 Feb 12 187

While #541 is missing today, #542 is at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and #543 is on display somewhere in Boston, Massachusetts.

So that’s seven out of nine that survive today.  Apparently, being captured increases the survival rate of artillery pieces.

In closing, many, many thanks to the effort of Civil War Trust and other preservation organizations for their ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield at Reams Station.

Mortars and shells wanted at the front: Importance of horizontal fires at Petersburg

We often read the Petersburg siege demonstrated the emergence of “modern war” in some fashion.  The “coffee table book” history draws the the comparison between Virginia trenches of 1864-5 to French trenches of 1915-8.  There is some resemblance, but no more than any functional nature would derive.  Men can only dig a hole in the ground for protection in a finite number of combinations.  Nice surface comparison, but for the most part the trenches are not exactly a mountain of evidence for the “modern war” argument.

If looking to draw positive connections between Petersburg and the tactical nature of warfare in 1915-18, there are two aspects I suggest we examine – the increased use of vertical fires and  changed operational tempo.  That latter point – what we call OPTEMPO in modern parlance – I’ll save for a later post.  But I have mentioned vertical fires earlier this year in relation to the Overland Campaign… particularly Cold Harbor.  And of course, mortars were heavily employed to support the assault after the mine went off.  In the late summer of 1864, the mortars took on added importance at Petersburg. A series of correspondence on August 14, 1864 demonstrates this. That morning, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt wrote to his capable subordinate, Colonel Henry L. Abbot in charge of the siege artillery, directing mortars to the front:

Four 10-inch mortars with a proper supply of ammunition are wanted in the battery near the Taylor house to control a battery of 32-pounder rifles just beyond the crest, distance from 1,200 to 1,500 yards. It would be well to get them out to-day ready to move; they may be ordered into battery to-night. I will inform you then whether to send them. Please answer.

Hunt’s request was to meet a specific tactical need – silencing a Confederate battery that occupied a particularly troublesome position.  The answer to this problem was not direct, or horizontal fire.  Rather he proposed using heavy mortars to fire indirectly, or vertically, onto the Confederate position.  Abbot answered almost immediately that morning and set in motion actions to place the mortars that night. Abbot later suggested a specific position for the mortars, based on earlier experience along that line:

If the 10-inch mortars are ordered forward, I would earnestly request that they be put in the fourteen-gun battery where Pratt’s 4½-inch guns were. The range is essentially the same. The approach to this battery is very good, and to the old battery very bad, a matter of great importance in supplying 10-inch ammunition on account of its great weight; and, moreover, this battery is well made and the old battery very ill constructed, constantly caving under mortar fire.

 Looking back at Hunt’s map illustrating the artillery support during the Battle of the Crater, Pratt’s battery is indicated by the number “24” and circled in blue below:


The correspondence does not specify which Confederate battery was the target.  For the map above, I’ve highlighted one such battery, which would be “beyond the crest” and approximately 1,500 yards distant.  Notice the close proximity to the mine crater. The range cited was well within the capabilities of field pieces. The Confederate guns mentioned were indeed large caliber weapons.  But the Federals might have concentrated the fires of several batteries to damage the battery.  However, having read about the thousands of shells dumped on Fort Sumter, we must ask how long and at what cost would that be completed? 

There is no mention if Hunt required the use of 10-inch case shot from the mortars, as used during the Battle of the Crater.  That particular projectile, of experimental nature, would have done well to silence the Confederate battery while field pieces demolished the earthworks protecting the guns with direct fire. 

Concurrent with the correspondence with Hunt, Abbot also opened a request for more mortar ammunition… and not just a routine request… to Captain Theodore Edson, Ordnance Officer at Fort Monroe:

I am out of my supply of Coehorn mortar shells and the rebels are taking advantage of it. Please send me any shells and wooden plugs which you can possibly procure, on the mail boat, telegraphing me when they start. I don’t care for prepared ammunition. Time is very important.

Backig this up, Abbot further explained the pressing need for mortar ammunition to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Army Chief of Ordnance in Washington and indicted this was a long standing request:

I have sixteen Coehorn mortars in position and not a shell in depot for them. The rebels keep up a constant mortar fire on us. I don’t care for prepared ammunition; all I want are shells, fuse-plugs, and paper fuses. These must be received very shortly or the army will suffer. I wrote on 15th ultimo, and telegraphed on 19th ultimo and 11th instant for a large supply. Please inform me at once whether I am to be supplied. Please also send 2,000 Parrott time-fuse plugs for siege guns.

The Confederates had also learned the value of vertical fire, and were now in position to employ some of the heavy mortars from Richmond along with some expedient weapons.  And at the same time, the Confederates were commencing production of their own Coehorn mortars.

Fast forward to 1917. When preparing the American Expeditionary Force for combat in France, American officers found themselves short of artillery in general.  But most acutely they called for howitzers and mortars capable of high angle fires.  Henry Abbot would have given them an “I told you!” look.  Vertical fires would become the dominant form of artillery support on the battlefield.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 42, Part II, Serial 88, pages 182-3.)