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"So Ends The Great Rebel Army…”
To Union Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Lincoln was a weak President, Grant an uninspired commander, Lee a slippery foe. His outspoken diary, never published before, memorably describes the Civil War’s final year
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
One of the most illuminating and important firsthand accounts of army life in the Civil War is contained in a diary kept by Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, who served with distinction as an artillerist in the Army of the Potomac and was chief of artillery for General G. K. Warren’s Fifth Corps during the final year of the war.
Wainwright was thirty-four when the war began, the son of a prosperous gentleman-farmer living at Rhinebeck, Mew York, not far from Hyde Park. He was well educated, had traveled in Europe, and had been an officer in the state militia; and in the fall of 1861 he was appointed major of the newly organized 1st New York Artillery Regiment. He kept a diary through his term of service—it fills five large notebooks and runs to more than 530,000 words—and held it in his possession after the war until his death in 1907. Thereafter it remained in the possession of relatives. Recently acquired by Allan Nevins, it is now in the Huntington Library at San Marino, California.
In his diary Colonel Wainwright spoke his mind frankly—about the Army; about his superior officers (he found General Warren an irascible man, very trying to work for); about the War Department, whose control of the Army he considered meddling and inefficient; and about President Lincoln, whom he did not admire very much.
Although a citizen-soldier, he acquired a professional point of view, and his judgments on military matters and on the Army’s command relationship with Washington apparently reflect the attitude of the hard core of regular officers who had been with the Army of the Potomac from its formative days and who to the end of the war were stoutly loyal to their first commander, General George B. McClellan.
Wainwright was an excellent soldier, well qualified for the important post he held. In the latter part of the war he was promoted to brevet brigadier general in recognition of his services. After the war he remained unmarried, living at his home in Dutchess County, New York, in Europe, and finally in Washington. His death certificate lists his age as eighty-two and his occupation as “retired army officer.”
Altogether this diary, no part of which has been published previously, is a document of substantial value, and it is safe to predict that in y ears to come it will be recognized as a landmark for historians. In the following pases, AMERICAN HERITAGE presents selected excerpts, covering the siege of Petersburg, the Battle of the Crater, the dreary months of trench warfare that followed, and finally the campaign of late March and early April, 1865, which ended in victory at Appomattox. Wainwrighfs wording has been retained, but necessarily much material has been omitted in order to bring the narrative within the compass of a magazine article.
This month the Wainwright diary will be published by Harcourt Brace and World in a much more complete form, edited by Dr. Nevins, under the title A Diary of Battle . —Bruce Catton
Petersburg and the Mine
As this section of the diary opens, the Army of the Potomac has just arrived in front of Petersburg, Virginia, a railroad junction point whose capture would compel the Confederates to evacuate Richmond. Grant’s forces reached Petersburg before most of Lee’s army did, but the opening attacks were bungled and the armies settled down to siege warfare much like that which characterized the trenches in France in World War I. Grant’s one chance for a break-through came late in July, when the explosion of a mine opened a gap in the Confederate lines .
We travelled very slowly, with constant stops and then a few yards gained. Take it altogether, I do not remember ever to have seen such an amount of sleepiness on the part of both officers and men. About two o’clock in the morning, finding the provost guard and those immediately in their front hauled off the road and lying down, I took it for a general halt. All my staff were soon asleep too on the roadside: I tried it myself, but, though my eyelids ached from sleepiness, I could not lose myself even for a moment.
We had probably been here for an hour or more when an aide came up and told me the corps was in camp about a mile on. We at once now pushed on; I saw the general, got my orders from him, as sleepy as myself, parked my batteries, gave my own orders, and was asleep in bed as quick as it could be done. About eight o’clock I was awakened with orders to have my command in readiness to move at very short notice. I rode up to Warren’s quarters, and afterward with him to the front. There had been a good deal of fighting going on all the morning by the Second and Ninth Corps; the former was off to the right, the latter reached to our front. Burnside’s negroes, I hear, carried one work, capturing four guns and some prisoners.