Petersburg: The Beginning of a Ten Month Battle that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

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petersburg-feat
Black soldiers played an important role in the fighting at Petersburg.

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When the Union Army of the Potomac under Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant failed to push the Confederates out of their fortifications at Cold Harbor in early June, 1864, Grant began putting together a new plan. He would again move east of the Confederates under General Robert E. Lee. Instead of trying to capture Richmond, he would move his army south of the Confederate capital to the small city of Petersburg through whose roads and railroads passed most of the Confederate army’s supplies. A smaller Union army under Major General Ben Butler had already been landed by ship east of Petersburg. 1

petersburg-courthousePetersburg was a small city of 18,000 in 1860 according to the U.S, Census.

Petersburg was a critical hub for supplying the Confederate capital and its largest army. The defenses of the city had only been completed in the spring of 1864 and they were untested. The fortifications consisted of a wall, called a parapet, that ran for ten miles. It was twenty feet wide at its base and six feet wide at its top, thick enough to stop a musket ball or cannon shell. A six foot deep ditch was in front of the parapet, making charging these walls a dangerous proposition. Along the parapet were heavily fortified positions for batteries of artillery.2

On June 9, a division of cavalry under German immigrant Brigadier General August Kautz along with a black infantry division tested the Confederate line and captured part of the undermanned fortifications. Poor coordination after this initial success kept the Unionists from capturing Petersburg before Robert E. Lee could send reinforcements south. The opportunity to quickly take what would become the most fortified city in North America slipped away. 3

overland-campaign-petersburgMap of the Overland Campaign from The Wilderness west of Fredericksburg to Petersburg, Many and June 1864. Union movements indicated by blue, Confederate by red.

Grant prepared to move his army from the killing grounds of Cold Harbor to his new objective, Petersburg. On June 13, Lee learned that Grant had pulled out of his trenches but he did not know to where Grant was bound. 4

A major obstacle to the movement of Grant’s 80,000 men was the wide James River blocking the route to Petersburg. Union troops arrived at the James beginning on June 13 where their engineers struggled to construct pontoon bridges to let them walk across the river. While they were waiting to cross, the Union troops were vulnerable to attack and the soldiers were put to work building fortifications. An Irish Brigade soldier wrote that “we are all busy carrying Rails, boards, logs, and everything that will stop a bullet, working ‘by the light of the moon’.” 5

pontoon-bridge

Pontoon bridges were created by laying a wooden roadway over a series of anchored boats called “pontoons.”

The river crossings had been picked by military engineers, one of the leading of whom was Lt. Peter Smith Michie, the chief engineer of General Butler’s Army of the James. Michie was a Scottish-born immigrant who came to the United States at the age of four. In 1863 he graduated second in his class at West Point. His future commander, Major General Edward Ord recognized Michie’s skills, saying that he was “worth his weight in gold.” The pontoon bridge that Michie sited was in water 90 feet deep and the bridge of 101 pontoon boats was 2,000 feet long and ten feet wide. 6

Grant would describe this crossing of a wide river deep in enemy country with a Confederate army in his rear as “one of the most perilous movements ever executed by a large army.” Dangerous as it was, the men of the Irish Brigade found the time they spent by the river waiting their turn to cross to be a welcome relief. One officer later recalled that the Brigade’s soldiers “spent a pleasant hour or two in fishing” until a ferry carried them over to the south side of the river. 7

On June 15, a corps of Union troops numbering 14,000 men under General Baldy Smith moved opposite the Confederate defenses and were ready to strike the 2,200 Confederate soldiers and 2,000 militia defending the city. When his men arrived at Petersburg, instead of pushing forward, Smith spent four hours preparing to attack. The Union push was delayed until 7:00 PM. The Unionists, many of them black soldiers new to combat, quickly drove back the thin Confederate line, but they had to halt when darkness fell.  Soon, Confederates under General Hoke arrived, doubling the number of defenders. Historian Earl Hess says that the arrival of Hoke “was the turning point of the campaign.” Instead of rolling over the Confederates, the Federals would now have to fight an increasingly powerful force. Hess says of Smith’s delay; “what might have been a Federal walkover was developing into a fierce battle.” That night the Irish Brigade crossed into that battle.8

The Irish had been marching almost without food for the last two days, but they were cheered when they arrived in Petersburg when they saw the cannons that “the negro troops” had captured during the earlier fighting. When they passed “the colored division”, wrote one immigrant later, “the negroes had an abundance of rations and liberally shared them with the men” of the Irish Brigade. The hungry man wrote that “Never did the army cracker and salt pork taste so sweet. No meal prepared by the most accomplished chef could have been relished better than that furnished by the colored troops.”9

On June 16, the Irish Brigade and the other regiments of Barlow’s Division of the II Corps were ordered to attack the Confederates at 6:00 PM, after watching Confederate reinforcements arrive and strengthen their defenses all day long. The Irish Brigade charged forward steadily even though the men were under artillery fire since the movement forward began. They rushed the works and soon were inside them. One veteran remembered that “For a few moments, a hand to hand fight took place…It was soon over and the Union forces retained possession.” Union troops fought on for three hours, but the lateness of the attack and poor coordination among officers soon turned this into yet another futile battle. 10

22-USCT-June-16-1864“Charge of the 22nd Negro Regiment during Civil War, 16 July 1864” by J. Andre Castaigne became the basis of the new stamp commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Petersburg.

The fighting may have been worthless, but worthy men suffered. Colonel Patrick Kelly, who was described by one of his subordinates as “the noble commander of the Irish Brigade,” was killed by a bullet through his head. He was considered “one of the bravest and most lovable of men” by those in the brigade. His loss meant that the Irish Brigade would have its third commander in a month of battles. Captain B.S. O’Neill of the Fighting 69th New York regiment was also killed. O’Neill had emigrated to the United States in 1861 solely to join the Irish Brigade.11

On July 17th the Irish Brigade was again ordered to join a large attack on the Confederate earthworks. They moved forward, but the assault quickly collapsed and those who reached the powerful Confederate works were killed or captured. 12

The men in some of the other brigades saw the order to attack that day as ludicrous. Some refused to move forward. George Bowen, commanding a company in the II Corps wrote that “the officers jumped up, waved their swords and gave the order to charge. The men did not stir….The men knew what they could or could not do, they had decided they could not take this line.”13

An artilleryman spoke with some soldiers on June 18, and asked them if they were going to charge the Confederate earthworks. They told him; “No, we are not going to charge. We are going to run towards the Confederate earthworks and then we are going to run back. We have had enough of assaulting earthworks.” 14

petersburg-june-1864The position of the Irish Brigade in the mid-June assaults is designated by the letter “A.”

On June 21 and 22 the Irish Brigade was part of a large movement by the II and VI Corps to cut Confederate supply lines south of Petersburg. The Union divisions became more and more separated as they moved deep into enemy country. A sudden Confederate assault by men under General William Mahone hit the Irish Brigade first. An officer of the Brigade wrote later that “The attack was to the Union troops more than a surprise. It was an astonishment.” The officer recalled that first contact; “suddenly, a heavy musketry fire was opened, not only from the left flank, but from the rear as well. The surprise was complete, the attack sudden and totally unexpected.” So unexpected that “Some regiments of the corps seemed paralyzed, the men running in every direction, and many of them going directly into the Confederate ranks.” The Irish Brigade fought for only ten minutes before being ordered to retreat. Lt. Colonel Mulholland of the Irish Brigade wrote that the 22nd of June was “the saddest day” for the Second Corps. It had always been the shock corps of the army, but on that day it had been thrown into disorder, losing artillery pieces and regimental flags in what Grant would call a “stampede.”15

By the end of June, the Irish Brigade was a shadow. Mulholland gave his assessment. Instead of being led by a Brigadier General, the Brigade “was commanded by a captain. Six of the ten field officers who had started with the campaign on May 5 had been killed and the other four severely wounded.” The Brigade’s core of Fenians had been swept away during two months of desperate carnage. 16

In July of 1864 the Irish Brigade was broken up. 17

Video: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

Resource:

The Siege of Petersburg Online is an excellent place to explore the ten months of fighting around Petersburg.

Sources:

1. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903); The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns by David Power Conyngham (1867); The Civil War Notebook of Daniel Chisholm: A Chronicle of Daily Life in the Union Army 1864- 1865 by Daniel Chilsholm (edited by W. Springer Menge & J. August Shimrak) 1989; The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Front Battles, June – August 1864, Volume 1 by Edwin C. Bearss Savas Beatie (2014); In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy]; Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Earl J. Hess Univeristy of South Carolina Press (2010); Operations South of the James: First Attempts to Capture Petersburg by August Kautz in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War; Operations South of the James: Repelling the First Assault on Petersburg by R.E. Colston in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War; Four Days of Battle at Petersburg by G.T. Beauregard in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
2.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15480.
3.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15502.
4.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15543.
5.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15543-15565.
6.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15335, 15585.
7.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 267; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15606
8.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15618-15665.
9.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 267; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy].
10.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15715-15732.
11.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 267-269; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy].
12.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 270; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy].
13.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location15920-15962.
14.  In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 15962.
15.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 273-279; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy] Kindle Location 16041.
16.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 279; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy].
17.  The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair Mulholland (1903) p. 279-282; In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat University of North Carolina Press (2013) [Edition Cited is Kindle Trilogy].

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

 


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