October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
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
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.
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 might say that we slept under fire last night, for odd shots were constantly coming over our way. So soon as it was light, we found that the enemy had abandoned the rest of this line of works to our left around the Avery house with their main force, leaving only a strong skirmish line, which fell back fighting as we advanced. Lee was putting up an inner line of works, and not having them finished this morning, fought us pretty stiffly all the way back. His batteries were within the new line, but he had a double skirmish line out, and strong bodies of infantry in all the bit of wood we had to pass through.
At three the attack was made, Hart and Bigelow shoving their guns up by hand directly behind the troops, and opening immediately. The fire along the whole line was tremendous on both sides, the battle being in many instances within long canister range of each other. I cannot say that our men went in well, or at all as if they meant to carry the works. In five minutes they were coming back. Finding several hundred men of the fourth division who had come back behind the ridge on which the batteries were, I rode down there, and tried to get them forward again.
Very foolishly, I cried out that I would lead them myself; and in the excitement of the moment I should have done it on horseback I believe, had the men gone, but not over some two dozen would budge. Had they gone I should probably have made no more entries here. In some fifteen or twenty minutes the whole attack had proved a failure, though it was some time longer before all our men got back out of the valley.
All the batteries of my brigade have been engaged throughout the day, firing a total of near 4,000 rounds. During the attack I was on top of the knoll where Hart and Bigelow were, mounted, until our men began to fall back. A piece of a laid-up shell passed through my pants and drawers directly under the right knee, cutting as square at its entrance as if done by a pair of scissors.
How it went where it did I cannot sec, the holes looking as if the shot must have gone directly through the leg.
This has been a day of rest; that is, so far as remaining under a constant fire of musketry, and an occasional outpouring of artillery can be called rest. As to getting the men up to assaulting point, I do not believe it possible; never has the Army of the Potomac been so demoralized as at this time.
General Hunt was here today and visited all our line. When we went out to Bigelow’s battery we found it very hot; the bullets from the rebel line whizzed about our ears at the rate of at least thirty a minute. I do not remember ever being more scared, and we crept up to the guns almost on our hands and knees. Yet this is the same ground on which two days ago I rode about mounted, when there was a hundred times as much firing. Could there be a stronger proof that courage is merely a non-realization of the danger one is in owing to excitement, responsibility, or something of the sort?
The weather has been waxing warmer the last two days, and today has been really a piper. Fortunately I have next to nothing to do, but try to keep cool and kill time. The men in the trenches, though, must suffer very much from this great heat.
Everything remains stationary in front of Petersburg. I see no prospect of our being any more expeditious in reducing this place than McClellan was, in front of Yorktown. We have already lost three or four times as many men as he did there, and have done nearly if not quite as much digging. Yet operations have not begun here; it is neither a siege nor an investment as yet, nor do I hear of anything being determined on. I fear that the truth is that all the fight is gone out of our men. Grant has used the army up, and will now have to wait until its morale is restored before he can do anything.
I have said nothing about War Department orders this month, having enough else to fill up; nor as to Banks’s incompetency on the Red River. In looking over the orders I find nothing of moment, save one in which the President commutes the death punishment of all deserters to imprisonment during the war. Poor, weak, well meaning Lincoln!
The Fourth of July passed without any very great observance by the Army. Having some of my Christmas box still on hand, we made quite a spread for us. The “pièce de résistance” was salmon and green peas, both of which were canned somewhere in France at least a year ago. Still, they were as fine and delicate as when first put up; quite equal to any I have ever eaten. ‘Tis singular that our people cannot learn to can these things as well as the French; or rather it would be were not the French the best cooks in the world, while the Americans are the worst. Our sutler brought us some champagne, but it was of the poorest Jersey brand. I could not drink a glass of it myself.
Speaking of drinks, General Burnside would appear to like them as well as his staff. I was over there one day to call on some of them, when happening to enter his camp near the general’s tent, I found him sitting in front of it in his shirt sleeves, alongside of a great pile of boxes labelled ale, cider, and whiskey. The general insisted on my taking some, so I drank a pint of cider with ice, which was most excellent.
Siege operations here have been at last determined on; the order, which I have not yet seen, was issued yesterday. I only know that the approaches are to be made from the front of this corps and the Ninth.
We are still without rain, and as there has been so much turning up of the dirt, the slightest wind renders the dust intolerable. It fills our tents even here at headquarters, where there is but little passing close by, making everything very dirty.
Dry, dry, dry; the leaves are as brass so far as their giving any moisture goes. The dust is intolerable; such as can only be equalled in the Sahara during a simoon. It has got so driven into the dark blue of our men’s coats that even the neatest of them look shabby. The great heat, however, has passed, but left its mark in a large increase of fever patients in our hospitals.
They say that Burnside is tunneling for a mine somewhere, but I have heard nothing particular about it as yet.
The news of the day, most welcome too, is the arrival of rain. Even in the midst of a siege, those things which add most to one’s comfort hold the first place in interest.
We are having cool weather after our rain; the nights really cold with their heavy dew. The dust, too, is already beginning to get up again. Work still goes on steadily.
The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at. It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege operations, or the engineers with it. The rebels somehow, probably from deserters, have got information of it, and the men there seem to laugh at it too, as their pickets are constantly asking after its welfare. I know nothing about it myself save that it is somewhere opposite the Taylor house, where Burnside’s lines come up very close to those of the enemy. Our engineers say that it is badly located. Neither they, Meade, nor the other corps commanders have any belief in its success.
Certain changes in the plan of operations here were decided on Friday night which will tend to hurry up the first scene in the tragedy. It was determined to adopt Burnside’s mine, which has been successfully made, and try that way of getting into the rebel lines.
Yesterday I spent the whole day with Hunt and Duane on our line, deciding where artillery to cover the assault was to be placed. Two batteries for four guns each are to be added between Ayres and Fort Hell; the works on the right, which are miserably planned, are to be rebuilt, and two large mortar batteries are to be erected for ten and eight-inch pieces.
The works preparatory to the explosion of thé mine are progressing rapidly. I have been all along our line with General Hunt today, making the final arrangements as to the placing of the guns. Saturday is now fixed on as the day of assault. The present plan is for twelve guns on the extreme right, twelve more where Ayres’s batteries arc, ten in two works between there and Fort Hell, and eight in that work; six of them siege guns. I have not yet quite decided on what batteries to place in each position; but have six batteries of the Sixth Corps placed at my disposal.
Mortar practice has got to be quite the fashion on both sides. I have not allowed any of the pieces on our front to be fired since I regained control of them, except when the enemy persevered in firing. But Burnside has blazed away pretty freely, all his artillery being subject to the division commanders.
Had a hard day’s work today, not getting to bed until half-past one at night. All my guns are in position and the officers have full and particular instructions, so that knowing my men I have every confidence that the artillery part of the affair tomorrow on this front will be well done.
The mine has exploded but we are not in Petersburg. The affair proved a fiasco, a most miserable fizzle. Never before have I felt that the Army of the Potomac was disgraced; failed it has frequently, and botches its commanding generals have made of more than one piece of work, but the army itself has always come out with honour. The only comfort I have tonight is that the artillery part of the business was perfect .
But to particulars, and first as to the ground. The rebel lines in this part are tolerably near straight, running north and south from the foot of Cemetery Hill to the great salient. Behind them the ground rises in a gentle slope to considerable height; along the top of which, and parallel to their works, is the Jerusalem Plank Road. I should say it might be an average of three or four hundred yards between the lines and the road. All this ground is open, without wood save detached trees, until you get near the cemetery, where there is a small copse in a little ravine. The battery under which the mine was placed was about a hundred and fifty yards in front and to their right of this copse.
At three o’clock we were all up. Day was hardly dawning; breakfast did not take long. I planted my flag where I had indicated that headquarters would be during the affair, immediately in rear of the great mortar battery. From a mound of dirt here I could see the whole rebel line from Cemetery Hill south, and all my own batteries from Fitzhugh to Phillips.
When I reached my post our lines were all alive. No fires had been allowed, but the men had made a cold breakfast and were ready for work; every piece was loaded and pointed, while the officers of each battery could be seen looking earnestly for the signal.
Half-past three, the hour fixed, passed with no explosion. The match had gone out, but Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants went up the gallery and lit it again. This caused so much of a delay that it was a quarter past four when it went off.
Not sixty seconds elapsed from the moment the doomed work rose in the air before every one of our batteries opened. It was a grand and most impressive sight and sound; in some respects the finest I have seen. The roar was not greater if equal to that at Gettysburg, but there was more variety of notes in it from the number of siege guns and mortars here. Very quickly the whole of our front was covered with a dense cloud of white smoke, so that all objects were obscured from my view save a dim view of the men handling their immense ten-inch shells immediately at my feet, and the rise of a great black ball, with a fiery tail, rolling over and over high up into the air until it was lost in the smoke.
To my view the explosion itself presented nothing but a column of black and white smoke rising perhaps a hundred yards into the air. I presume the guns of the battery and most of the men in it were carried up too, but they were so enveloped in the smoke and dust that I at least could not see them. Our fire was splendid. It was not ten minutes, I think, before the enemy were completely silenced; then I was delighted with the promptness with which nearly all my batteries slackened off their fire to one in which they could take deliberate aim, and watch the course of each shot. The infantry, too, ceased after a time, and I was again able to see something of what was going on. All I could make out was that our men were in possession of the mined battery, as I could discern a number of flags there.
I looked in vain, however, for the prompt movement along the inside of their lines, to right and left; nor was any such move made at any time during the day, or so far as I can learn even attempted. Another thing I noticed, which struck me at the time: I could not see any large bodies of troops passing from our lines across into the rebel works, but a continuous stream of single men or little squads.
So completely did we subdue the enemy fire from their line of works that after the first spurt, they did not throw over a score of shells into our lines. They, however, at times opened briskly from the two batteries on the crest, and from one in the redoubt, on the mass of our men in the crater of the mine; especially after ten o’clock.
My loss today has been almost nothing. Nor can the loss of the infantry in this corps amount to anything much. In Burnside’s, I fear, though, it has been heavy. It always is in badly managed affairs, and his men were evidently so crowded in the crater that a single shell exploding among them—and I saw three go off at once in their very midst—must have hurt a great many.
Since returning to camp I learn that the brigade, which was to have charged first, would not go, and another had to be substituted, by which much time was lost after the explosion. Where was the “forlorn hope” of volunteers, supported by the picked regiments of the corps?
A third trouble was that after the first charge the men were not moved over in order, but were directed “to make a run for it” and reform their companies after they got over. Consequently all was confusion in the crowded crater; the good men trying to find their own command and the cowards to hide from it. This alone was sufficient to cause a failure, and it is about the most disgracefully unmilitary thing I have heard of. The general officer who gave such an order, or allowed it to be given, ought to be shot.
All was quiet last night and has been today, though Meade fully expected a counterattack on our left and rear from Lee. Today there has been a truce about the mine for the burial of our dead, and the removal of the remaining wounded. The crater was evacuated soon after dark last night.
I have learned nothing additional today about yesterday’s failure, being busy with the month’s returns, and getting everything straight once more. Tomorrow I shall try to get up to headquarters and hear what I can there. The President is at City Point today, whither Grant has gone to consult with him. Did he come down to enter Petersburg in triumph, or, hearing of the fizzle, has he come to insist that “the Army of the Potomac shall do something?” I really could not blame his requiring almost anything to wipe out the disgrace of yesterday; but I much doubt his ability to comprehend the greatness of it. Our loss is now estimated at 2,300.
Everything has continued quiet since the failure of Saturday last. Lee has made no attempt to return the compliment. As is always the case after a failure, the camps are full of rumors of a chanee in the command of this army. Many are inclined to throw the blame of the failure on Meade. I do not myself think that he is free; but cannot see what fault can be laid at this door, which is not equally close to Grant’s. The whole planning of the mine was Burnside’s; he actually ranks Meade, and indeed was his commander at one time in this very army. Both these circumstances made it delicate to interfere … to any extent until Burnside had failed. So soon as this became certain, however, Meade ought to have stepped in and directed everything. So, too, Grant being Meade’s commander, and equally present, should have acted when Meade failed to do so. Everyone I have talked to believes that it could have been made a success in spite of Burnside’s miscarriage.
From General Hunt I have learned certain facts which account for the whole thing; but make Burnside’s capabilities—for I suppose he has more than the average—perfectly inexplicable to me. Hunt considered the silencing of the guns in the enemy’s reentrant a matter of the first importance, and to make sure of it had erected a very strong battery of fourteen siege guns behind a small wood near the Taylor house; all of which guns would bear on the battery of the enemy’s when the wood was cleared away. To be sure that this was done, he sent a note to Burnside, by Warner, late in the afternoon reminding him of it.
Twice again during the night he sent Warner down to see if it was done, and, if not, to remind Burnside of it.
The last time Burnside replied that as the matter of the first importance now was to keep the enemy ignorant of any special movement on our side, he would not cut the trees down until the mine was exploded, when a strong party of axemen should be there, who could get them all down in a few minutes. The consequence was, as might have been expected, that the trees were not cut at all, and this great battery was unable to fire at all in that direction. How easy it would have been for Burnside to send an officer out to listen if the chopping could be heard even so far off as his own lines!—when I know he would not have heard a sound.
But another thing Hunt told me is still more wonderful. Burnside made no arrangement for his column to get out of his own works! Nor did any of his subordinates think of it. The obstructions in front of them at this point had been made as strong as possible on account of their nearness to the enemy; and no arrangements having been made to remove them, the men could not get through without breaking ranks, or march by the flank. Where was the common sense of the division and brigade officers who commanded the assaulting column, that they did not themselves see that such a matter was provided for? Surely such a lot of fools did not deserve to succeed.
Siege Warfare; the Election of 1864
After the failure of the attack at the crater, siege warfare was resumed. Grant made a number of attempts to extend his left around Lee’s right flank, without any success except that these maneuvers compelled Lee to make constant extensions of his undermanned line. Meanwhile, Major General Philip Sheridan scored decisive victories in the Shenandoah Valley, giving encouragement to the battle-weary Union troops at Petersburg. The fall dragged on, President Lincoln won re-election—it might be noted that Colonel Wainwright refused to vote for him—and the bloody year of 1864 ended with the armies still fixed in front of Petersburg .
Our receipts are now considerably more than our losses, so there is every prospect of the regiment soon being full to the maximum allowed by law, which it has never yet been. The men coming to me are a fine lot generally; farmers’ sons and others from northern New York and some from Canada who are attracted by the high bounties. We have not had such men enlisting since the first furor of patriotism.
Sheridan is still doing good work in the valley. On Thursday, he reports after maneuvering all day he attacked Early at four P.M. in his lines, which were strongly posted at Fisher’s Hill, carrying everything before him, and capturing sixteen guns. At times I cannot help thinking that these victories are the beginning of the end, the death-blows to the rebellion. Certain it is that either Sheridan has an overwhelming majority of numbers, or the life has gone out of the rebels.
Since we have again settled down politics have once more begun to occupy much of the talk; I know no other way to express it, for it is mere talk. I have received circulars from Governor Seymour containing the law of New York State with regard to soldiers in the field voting. I do not approve of their voting at all; but, if they must, I think the New York plan by which each man’s vote will be deposited in his own town the best. Should I vote it will be for McClellan, or rather against Lincoln.
We have been quite quiet here since Sunday; but rumours of an early move are prevalent, some of them even going so far as to prophecy the fall of Richmond before the election. I have no hope of that long desired event being so soon brought about; but fully expect another winter of it on the sacred soil. There are, however, certain indications of the commencement of the end of the rebellion in the character, numbers, and reports of the deserters who come in. Every morning more or less who have crossed the lines the preceding night are marched up to headquarters. Nor arc they all of that wretched, ragged class of stragglers and shirks who have come in previously, but a number of real men, soldiers, are mixed in, who say that their cause is played out; that they have no more hopes of success, and give it up.
My own three years were out yesterday! I came very near forgetting it, for so accustomed have we become to it, that three years of war do not seem so much to look back upon as one did at the time of my first anniversary. I have been trying tonight to recall some of the thoughts and feelings which came across me during the first months of my service, but find it almost impossible.
How completely, too, have my ideas of great men changed in the last three years; not but what I still believe in geniuses like Gustavus, Napoleon and a dozen others perhaps, but when you leave these out and come down to the ordinary man called great, the illusion is completely dispelled, and I see how a mere lucky hit or the fortunate combination of circumstances have given most of them their reputations. I say now without hesitation that there is not a great man living in this country; certainly not a great general in cither army or anything approaching to it. The objects of the war, also, have completely changed: the real question of the salvation of the Union has been so completely overlaid by the insurance of a continuation in power of the Republican party that it is only by digging deep down that I can find the object for which alone I am fighting.
All continues quiet here. As the time for the Presidential election draws near, politics absorb more and more of the time and thoughts of officers and men. The camps are full of civilians sent down to secure the soldiers’ votes for one side or the other. His party being in power at Washington, the friends of Mr. Lincoln of course outnumber their opponents two to one. There will no doubt be a great deal of influence exerted by some officers over the men under their command.
General Crawford is quite a politician, strong on the side of those in power; from his talk one would be led to believe that nothing but certain ruin was in reserve for the country should Mr. Lincoln not be elected. Hunt, on the contrary, is an out-and-out Democrat, beside being a warm personal friend of McClellan. Hc holds that the réélection of Lincoln will prolong the war another four years, and then result in the breaking up of the Union. I do not believe in the extreme views of either side. The rebellion must cease in another year from mere inanition in my opinion. The two parties are equally corrupt, and equally far from my views in their extreme doctrines; while I believe both of the presidential candidates to be sound, and almost identical in their personal views. Both of them, too, are wanting in nerve. But Mr. Lincoln is much the worse, I believe, in this respect. We know that he is already completely in the hands of the radicals of his party, while there is at least a chance that McClellan, if elected, may not fall into the same snare.
This evening we can think and talk of nothing but another victory gained by Sheridan in the valley. His dispatch is hardly as bombasting as some of his others, though the little word “I” is to be found in almost every line of it. Sheridan was in Winchester at the commencement of the fight, and General Wright in command. The rebels were the attacking party, and completely successful at first, driving our whole force back four miles and capturing twenty pieces of artillery. Their second attack at one P.M. was repulsed and at three P.M. , a counter attack made resulting in a complete victory on our part.
From full reports received from Sheridan and the newspaper accounts, it is now evident that his victory is even more complete than it at first appeared to be. He now claims thirty guns captured and sixteen hundred prisoners. Early’s army, they say, is entirely broken up.
Another move is on foot; we start at daylight tomorrow. Our whole corps is to go, with four days rations on the men and sixty rounds of ammunition. I am to take but ten rifled and twelve smooth-bore guns with us while the remainder hold the closed forts here.
Last night I sent off my proxy to Mr. Gillender to cast my vote for McClcllan. I was at last induced to vote from sheer distrust of those in power now, and the belief that any change must be for the better. As to the radical newspaper charges that McClellan would acknowledge secession if elected, they arc absurd nonsense. Major Duane has just returned from home, where he saw McClellan a number of times. General Hunt told me yesterday that Duane related to him a conversation he had had with McClellan, in which the general stated that should he be elected, he expected to be very unpopular the first year, as he should use every power possible to close the war at once, should enforce the draft strictly, and listen to no remonstrance until the rebellion was effectually quashed.
I have just now (ten P.M. ) got an order to be ready at four A.M. tomorrow instead of at daylight. We are to make another trial at turning Lee’s right so as to get possession of the South Side Road. O CTOBER 28, F RIDAY Back at the old spot again, and nothing accomplished! Nothing save a few hundred more men laid under the sod, and a thousand or two carried off with a ball in their body or minus a leg or arm. Two years ago such a failure would have raised a hornets’ nest about the ears of the commanding general, but now the country is accustomed to it, and the whole thing will be glossed over in some way.
The newspapers try to make the best of our failure last week, taking their cue from Grant’s dispatch to Washington, in which he calls the move a “reconnoissance.” This affords a vast deal of amusement in the army, considering there were greater exertions and preparations made for this expedition than any previous one. There must have been near 40,000 men on the trip, but not more than a quarter of them were really in the fight. I was told at army headquarters that the official reports put our entire loss at 1,904.
The newspapers we received today, and telegrams, we know enough of the election yesterday to show that the democratic hopes of a great change in public sentiment has not been realized; at least the change has not become great enough to induce people to swallow the Chicago pill. The result among those troops who cast their vote in the field in this corps was as follows:
NOVEMBER 24, THURSDAY
This is “Thanksgiving Day” all over the country. Great preparations were made in New York City to supply all the soldiers with a turkey dinner, and the papers this week have been full of accounts of the cooking and packing. Unfortunately it did not get down in time for distribution this morning, though the cargoes arrived at City Point last night. Captain Steele tells me that the proportion to this corps will be 14,000 pounds of turkey, one hundred barrels of apples, with cranberry sauce and pies in like quantity. As the officers are to get some as well as the men, teamsters, hospitals, and all, the above amount will have to be divided among about 24,000, giving rather over a half-a-pound of turkey, one apple, and a bit of pie to each.
We, that is the Fifth Corps, are to move tomorrow morning at daylight. It is a mere raiding expedition for the purpose of destroying the Wcldon Railroad so far south from Stoney Creek as will prevent Lee from drawing any supplies from that direction. General Warren will have command, and in addition to all the infantry of his own corps, he is to have Mott’s division of the Second, and Gregg’s division of cavalry. DECEMBER 6, TUESDAY The batch of brevets for this corps arrived this evening. I get all those which I recommended for officers who are still present with me; also one for myself. That is an official notice of the appointment from Secretary Stanton, the actual commission depending on the confirmation of the appointment by the Senate. I shall therefore wait until I am confirmed before I assume the title, as I should not at all like to have to fall back to colonel after having once signed myself general.
We have had a lovely day for this the first stage of our march; clear and soft as June, and an excellent road all the way. Gregg led out with one brigade of cavalry and a horse battery; leaving his other brigade to cover the right flank and the rear.
The head of the infantry column reached this place, Freeman’s Ford, about two hours before dark. It was ten o’clock before our headquarters wagons crossed, so that supper could be got ready. I was fortunate enough to get a nice steak and a cup of coffee from the engineers soon after dark along with General Warren. I have never eaten a nicer steak in the field, though it was cooked in a frying pan. Soon after I got the batteries over and in camp, I spread my blankets under the trees about fifty yards above the bridge head and went to sleep.
This was one of the romances of camp life: the soft night air; the tall leafless trees under which we bivouacked, and which stretched all along the south side of the river; the wide open plain on the opposite bank; the bridge, lighted up by great pitch-pine fires; the noise of the men, horses and mules—all contributed to make a picture such as one dreams of.
I do not know how exactly to designate the spot where we camp tonight; it being merely at a house by the roadside. The master of the house is not at home, having gone, so at least his wife told us, some twelve or fifteen miles off to get salt for putting down his winter’s supply of bacon. The poor fellow might as well have saved his time and money, for he will find no pigs to slaughter when he gets back, our men having killed and eaten the two large hogs before dark. I arrived here about four o’clock, and the afternoon having come off somewhat cold, I went into the house to warm myself. Everything shows the poverty of the inhabitants, though the house was a large one, and the builder no doubt at that time thought himself pretty well-to-do in the world. Now the white part of the household were evidently all living in one room: the family consisting, beside the absent man, of a poor sickly-looking wife, with a young babe at the breast, two other children, and a sister of the man, who I suspect was the backbone of the whole establishment.
In this room were two large four-poster bedsteads, and it seemed to be the only place where they had a fire, at the time of our arrival, for they were baking some cakes there in a dutch oven. These cakes consisted of nothing but cornmeal and water, with the addition of a small proportion of wheat flour.
All the infantry were at work today destroying the railroad, and the work was pretty effectually done for some twenty miles between the Nottaway and Meherrin Rivers; the ties being all taken up and the rails heated and bent. Beyond this, we could do nothing save destroy a few culverts. Gregg’s cavalry pushed on to the Meherrin and tried to burn the bridge there, but did not sueceed.
Last night was very hard on the men; it began to snow soon after dark, followed by a fine rain and cold. This morning everything was sheeted with ice; each spray of the trees and blade of grass was completely coated, making the country a most beautiful sight when the sun came out, but the roads terrible for the footmen. There was more drunkenness among the infantry than on our march out, and one of Stewart’s men had got royally tight. This was the only case of either drunkenness or straggling I heard of in my own command during the whole raid. He was in charge of the first sergeant, who got him up to his battery and tied him behind one of the guns, where he marched the rest of the day, and was made sober by the aid of a bucket of water thrown over him every once in a while.
The men had behaved so well up to this afternoon that I am doubly sorry to have a long black mark to set against them. Still, if the story told is true, there was great provocation; not enough to justify their acts at all, but somewhat excuse’them. It is said that some two or three dead men, stripped, were found by the roadside by our advance, who were supposed to be some of our men who had got very drunk when we went out, and then been murdered by guerrillas. Just north of Suffolk Court House a naked body was found which was recognized as a sergeant in one of the regiments; and while the men were burying it, a negro came up and said that the man who shot the sergeant was in a house which he pointed out, hid away under some cornshucks in the garret. The lieutenant commanding the ex-sergeant’s company thereupon took his men, surrounded the house, searched the attic, and found a man hid there as the negro had described. Leaving the man there, he set the house on fire, and burned the man in it. This is the story as told to me; if all true, including the negro’s testimony as to the identity of the murderer of the sergeant, one cannot blame his comrades for takine the law into their own hands.
Safe back again in our old quarters, without a fight, or any mishap, though we were absent the full six days for which we took supplies. The expedition has been a success, in that it accomplished all it was sent out for, and with small loss.
Fort Stedman and Five Forks
The deadlock at Petersburg continued until late in March, Lee’s army constantly growing weaker. On March 25, Lee made a desperate attempt to break Grant’s line, attacking a strong point called Fort Stedman. The attack failed, and a Jew days later Grant took the offensive. General Sheridan, with the cavalry and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, smashed Lee’s extreme right in the controversial battle of Five Forks, during which Sheridan (using authority Grant had given him) removed General Warren from command, turning the corps over to General Charles Griffin. Sheridan’s complaint that Warren was late in getting his men into action and that he handled them inefficiently once they did get in has not been generally accepted by military historians, and years later a Court of Inquiry exonerated the luckless Warren. In any case, the fall of Petersburg and the evacuation of Richmond came as a direct result of the victory at Five Forks, and Lee’s army began its tragic retreat to Appomattox .
Yesterday morning the long quiet of the winter was broken at the first streak of dawn by a very decided attack on our lines. It was a well conceived affair, a complete surprise, and successful in its first step. If the rebels had as much fight in them now as they had at Gettysburg, they might possibly have driven us out of this entirely, though I am by no means sure of it, for after their first dash all would have been open country.
I was first awakened by an order from General Hunt to turn out all my batteries, and to send word to General Parke that they were at his service. I was partially dressed in one minute and out of my tent: the sun was not yet up: the roar of artillery was constant and very loud: I believe it was not more than twenty minutes from the time of my getting Hunt’s first order until the time the two batteries started.
When, an hour or so later, the firing slacked off I went up to army headquarters to hear exactly what was the matter, as I knew nothing beyond the fact that the enemy had broken through our lines at Fort Stedman. I left everything in carnp ready for whatever might turn up.
Fort Stedman is, I believe, the farthest to the right of any of our enclosed works. The attack is said to have been made by two divisions, small ones I judge, and was under General Gordon. Lee’s intention doubtless was to seize the high ground, clean out our line to Appomattox and so cut off our communications with City Point. But his troops were evidently not willing, and the reports of deserters, that their men would not attack, proved to be essentially correct. The time lost by Gordon’s reserves not coming up enabled Parke to get a line formed on this ridge, and to garnish it with a number of guns from his left, so that the captured work became too hot for its holders; and when Hartranft’s division was thrown forward, they recaptured all our line with little trouble.
The whole army is feeling very jubilant today over the affair, and as General Mcade said to me this morning, “wish they would try it every day.” What will be the next move a very few days will now show. W HITE O AK R OAD , A PRIL 1, 1865, S ATURDAY This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory.
During the morning Sheridan advanced with his cavalry from Dinwiddie Court House, the enemy falling back skirmishing to the White Oak Road, where the Ford Road crosses it, at a place called the Five Forks. Here they had a line of low breastworks thrown up. Warren and the whole of the Fifth Corps [were] to attack along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot on the White Oak Road. Ayres’s division held the left, Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally. Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and Griffin in rear of Crawford.
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.
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 showed that the works were carried.
I do not think that it was over twenty minutes from the time I left Warren before I saw the first [column of about i ,000] prisoners. These men all moved along cheerfully, without one particle of that sullenness which formerly characterized them under similar circumstances. They joked with our men along the line and I repeatedly heard them say, “We arc 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.
This procession of prisoners was soon followed by another quite as numerous or even larger.
I then passed out onto the White Oak Road, and rode up it westward as the firing was becoming more distant.
At the Forks I found two guns, three-inch, just in their works, and 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. I went up the Ford Road then; some fifty yards up I found another gun, unlimbered and pointing east; perhaps a hundred yards further on two more standing in the road limbered. This made a total of five three-inch guns.
I turned back and pushed along the White Oak Road to find Warren. 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. 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.
[I] told Warren what directions Sheridan had given me, and inquired where 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 so doing, but referred him to General Grant to whom he was to report for orders.
I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was. [Later I learned] that in swinging around Crawford’s division separated from Ayres’s, keeping off too much to the north; that Warren sent twice to recall him; and finally went himself and brought the division round. Griffin meantime seeing the gap left between the Second and Third divisions, closed up on Ayres’s left and took the place Crawford should have occupied. It was Warren’s having to go himself to bring Crawford back which was the immediate occasion of his removal, though it could not have been the actual cause.
To me his removal at this time, and after the victory had been won, appears wrong and very cruel. It seems that even had he been removed just before, the victory should have covered up very big faults, and Sheridan should have restored him at once.
In his retreat from the Petersburg lines, Lee was trying to evade Grant’s army and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston, who had a Confederate army near Raleigh, North Carolina, where he faced a much larger Union army under General William T. Sherman. Sheridan commanded the Union advance, outdistanced the weary, half-starved Confederates, and brought them to bay at Appomattox Court House, where Lee found his army completely boxed in by a Union force that greatly outnumbered his own. Union artillery saw little action during the pursuit, but Wainwright did reach Appomattox in time to get his gum in line ready for the final battle which was never fought.
No fighting today for the Fifth Corps; only a hard and tiring march. I was still sitting by where our tents had been trying to finish a short letter home, when cheer after cheer rang from the troops along the road. I supposed that Sheridan was riding by; for he excites the greatest enthusiasm among the men, and is greeted whenever seen with such cheers as I have not heard given to any officer since McClellan’s day.
But this time I was mistaken—the hurrahs were for the fall of Petersburg this morning, news of which had just arrived.
There was an alarm on Crawford’s front during the night, and considerable firing on the part of his men. Some stray body of rebels ran against while trying to join their main force.
I pushed to the front myself and found Sheridan and Griffin at a small house near two miles from where we started from. While at this house, I saw a good deal of Sheridan; he appeared exceedingly affable and pleasant in his intercourse with his staff, but certainly would not impress one by his looks any more than Grant does. He is short, thickset, and common Irish looking. Met in the Bowery, one would certainly set him down as a “b’hoy”; and his dress is in perfect keeping with that character. His Irish blood shone out today in the haphazard way he drove ahead, first on one road, then on another, seeming to think that infantry and artillery could go wherever his own horse did, and a whole corps turn in an equally small space.
We received a dispatch from army headquarters, saying that Richmond was evacuated last night. To all intents the rebellion may be said now to be over; certainly it is on its last legs. If those legs are long enough to enable Lee to get around us and join Johnston in North Carolina, they may be strong enough to give us one more big fight. All the heart and spirit being gone, though, strength of leg is not likely to amount to much.
I may head the account of this day in large letters for its events close the rebellion. The Army of Northern Virginia under Lee has been its main strength, and today that army has surrendered. During three long and hard fought campaigns it has withstood every effort of the Army of the Potomac: now at the commencement of the fourth, it is obliged to succumb without even one great pitched battle. Could the war have been closed with such a battle as Gettysburg, it would have been more glorious for us; more in accordance with what poetical justice would seem to owe to the Army of the Potomac. As it is, the rebellion has been worn out rather than suppressed. The cjth of April will, however, be a day forever to be remembered with thanksgiving throughout our land.
Sheridan’s cavalry struck the head of Lee’s retreating army last night near Appomattox Station on the railroad, and was able to seize and hold the road to Lynchburg in advance of them; the main road at this point coming down quite near to the railroad. With the first break of day our Corps was again in motion. On arriving at the station after a couple of hours’ march, the corps was massed a short distance to the north of it.
The country here is broken into abrupt hills, but is mostly cleared. I found a superb position for my guns near a house, and just where the right of the Fifth Corps joined the Army of the James.
From here we could look down into a valley stretching to the north for some three miles. Immediately below lay the little village of Appomattox Court House into which our skirmishing line was just driving the enemy. Beyond was one mass of men, wagons and artillery; in the distance they appeared to be in utter confusion. Shells from the right and left were bursting in their midst, especially from the right away off to the north where the Second and Sixth Corps were. Little puffs of smoke, too, showed our skirmish line pushing in from the east, as far as the eye could reach.
I at once ordered Rogers up on the left of the house, leaving Mink below as the range was too great for his guns. Just as the guns were in the act of being unlimbered, a flag of truce came galloping up, when all firing was immediately stopped. Rogers and his men were greatly disappointed in not getting a last shot at the rebellion; for Lee’s army presented a perfect target for long-range firing. In about an hour we received orders for a suspension of hostilities until three o’clock to arrange terms of surrender. During this time both armies were to remain exactly as they were.
Soon after three o’clock we received notice that the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was agreed on. The notice did not reach Humphreys until a little after the appointed time. The instant time was out, he commenced to advance and his batteries opened a vigorous cannonade. For a few minutes we thought that the fight was opened in earnest; but Meade quickly stopped it. An hour or so before dark, we received a circular announcing the surrender of Lee’s Army and directing that we go into camp, make ourselves comfortable and send for rations and supplies.
So ends the great rebel army: the army of the rebellion. For I doubt if the force Johnston has in North Carolina amounts to very much, and it is the only army worth calling such they have left east of the Mississippi. Set aside the cause in which it was engaged, the history of the Army of Northern Virginia has been a glorious one. There cannot, however, be much of it left in the valley below tonight, for since this campaign opened by the attack on Fort Stedman, we must have taken near 30,000 prisoners, while very larger numbers have no doubt deserted since they left Richmond and Petersburg, seeking to reach their homes across the country.
I rode in to look at the rebel camp today, but found that the lines were not yet open for general passing. I was, however, far more fortunate than I expected, for I chanced to get down to the lines while Grant and Lee were having their last interview, which gave me an excellent opportunity to see the latter. Lee is a fine, English looking man; somewhat stout, with a florid complexion and white hair; his appearance is decidedly that of a gentleman. The meeting took place near a small stream, in the road, and all were mounted. What its object was, or what was said on either side, I do not know. In the Tavern, I saw Longstreet, Pickctt, Gordon, Heath, and a number of their other generals. The grey uniform is very handsome when good, and new; setting off a fine looking man to great advantage.
Tonight the men are celebrating the surrender with improvised fireworks. It was some time before I could make out how they managed to obtain what appeared to be hundreds of roman candles, but at last discovered that they were shooting rebel fuses from their muskets with small charges of powder. These exactly resembled the balls thrown out by roman candles. The effect together with the camp fires, was really beautiful.