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The Assault by our Troops on Saturday.


July and August 1864

From The Missouri Democrat, Friday, August 5, 1864.


The Assault by our Troops on Saturday.


The Loss on Both Sides Between Four and Five Thousand.

A Detailed Sketch of the whole Matter.


Saturday Evening, July 30, 1864.

I am called to the fulfillment of an ungracious task to-night.  Instead of success and victory which the morning fairly promised, I have to write of disaster and defeat.  To-day’s brief history affords another striking proof of the uncertain issues of battle, showing how the shrewdest and most elaborate strategic planning may be completely thwarted by an error or an accident in tactics.  To-day’s disaster finds solution in the old story that “some one has blundered” in a manner “worse than a crime,” but precisely who the blunderer is, I do not know, and if I knew it would not devolve upon me at present to tell.  A military tribunal must decide that point.

With the passage of the James was exhausted all possibilities of a movement by the left flank with Richmond as the objective point.  Nothing, therefore, remained to General Grant but to assault the rebel lines in front of him at Petersburg.  The past six weeks have been devoted to preparation for this assault.  From day to day, by the aid of the shovel and the pick, our lines have been assiduously advanced by zig-zags and covered ways, until the outlying pickets of both armies have scarcely averaged five hundred yards distance between them.  Along portions of the line, the intervals between the rifle-pits was scarcely one hundred and fifty yards.  The ground over which our advances have been made is itself a series of natural fortifications, adding vastly to the difficulty of taking possession of it.  Perhaps your readers will form a more perfect opinion of its features, if I tell them that it very much resembles Greenwood Cemetery in its profile.  There are similar hills and eminences, sloping more or less precipitously into ravines which intersect at every conceivable angle, and many of the elevations are thickly wooded.  Over ground of this impracticable nature our men have steadily fought and dug their way, driving the enemy before them, until only the hill remained for them to take to place our guns in a position commanding at easy range the town of Petersburg.  It is known as Cemetery Hill. Its crest, frowning with guns, is not more than 800 yards distant from our advanced works, and its gently sloping sides are welted with long rows of earthworks, pitted with redoubts and redans, and ridged with serried salients and curtains and all the skillful defences known to skillful military engineers.

The vital importance to us of this point will readily be admitted.  To gain it by direct assault must necessarily cost many lives, but to gain it in the cheapest manner gave occasion for the display of that high strategy of which General Grant has long since proved himself the master.  Therefore it was that on Tuesday night last the 2d corps, under General Hancock, and two divisions of cavalry under General Kautz, crossed the James river for the purpose of engaging the enemy, who, misled by some preliminary operations of General Foster’s command at Deep Bottom, and of a portion of the 19th corps at Strawberry Plains, a mile below, had a day or two earlier heavily reinforced the troops in the vicinity of Malvern Hill.  The demonstration here had precisely the effect which General Grant desired.  Fearing a serious attack, Lee dispatched a column, estimated at from 12,000 to 15,000 strong, from before Petersburg, and the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond was kept busy on Friday and Friday night in transporting the troops.  To keep up the rebel General’s delusion, an immense train of over 400 empty covered wagons, mainly the transportation of the 6th corps, crossed the Appomattox on Friday in broad daylight, in full view of the rebel signal lookouts at Bermuda Hundred, as if destined for the army at Deep Bottom.  But on Friday night, as the rebels were hurriedly taking possession of their new line, the 2d corps and the cavalry were quietly withdrawn with an additional facility for rapid movement in a third pontoon bridge laid across the James in the afternoon.  By daylight this morning, these troops were nearly all in position to co-operate with the remainder of the army in the attack.  The strategy was therefore perfect, and no share of the reverse can be attributed to failure in this part of the programme.

All these strategems, too, were conducted with such secrecy, that information of their precise bearing was narrowed down to the circle of the corps commanders.  Until late Friday night, few persons in the army were disposed to believe differently from what General Lee suspected, viz:  that a movement upon Richmond was intended from the north side of the James, and were only undeceived when, at one o’clock this morning, the troops were got into position for the assault.

The tactics of the movement were under General Meade’s direction.  His arrangement of troops and order of battle was as follows:  The 18th corps (General Ord) was withdrawn on Thursday morning from its position on the extreme right, resting on the Appomattox, (being relieved by Mott’s division of the 2d corps) and massed in the rear of the 9th corps, (Burnside’s) the center of our line, in front of which the attack was to be initiated.  The extreme left held by the 5th corps (Warren’s,) was to be in readiness to advance as soon as Burnside pierced the works in front of him.  Collaterally, but in unison with the advance of the infantry, every piece of siege artillery posted along the line was ordered to open simultaneously upon the enemy at a given signal made by the explosion of the mine containing eight tons of powder, which was placed directly beneath the rebel battery which Burnside was to assault.  Not only were the siege pieces to open a fierce fire, but all the field artillery which could be got into position after the opening of the battle was to advance as opportunity offered, and bring their batteries into play.  Upon this awful fire of heavy guns it was natural that great stress should be placed, in expectation that the shock of its suddenness would have a demoralizing effect, and so make the way of the infantry easier.  So far all was well arranged; success was promising, and much confidence was felt in the result.

The time fixed for the assault was 3 1-2 o’clock, when, without any moon, an almost Cimmerian darkness would effectually shut out from the enemy the unavoidable stir and bustle of the troops as they got into position.  But just here the first misfortune of the day occurred.  Upon attempting to fire the mine the fuse or slow-match failed, and another was tried, I am told, with a similar result.  The third fuse was successful in its mission, but the hour’s delay had made it broad daylight, and, in consequence, the enemy’s suspicions were aroused, (at least along a portion of his front,) and we were robbed of the advantage of a surprise.

This was a very great misfortune.  The army felt it to be such as they stood in suspense and silent impatience in the cold gray of the morning, crouching on their arms.  Of the effect of the explosion you have already been apprised.  The mine had been talked of in the army for weeks, but only talked of with bated breath, although whisperings concerning it have been wafted over from the rebels.  Clearly they did not know its precise locality, and few on our side, I suspect, were any wiser.  It has been tacitly acknowledged as an improper subject for conversation, and the most curious have appeared to feel the propriety of checking themselves.  The noise of the explosion was a dull, rumbling thud, preceded, I am told, by a few seconds’ swaying and quaking of the ground in the immediate vicinity.  The earth was rent along the entire course of the excavation, heaving slowly and majestically to the surface, and folding sideways to exhibit a deep and yawning chasm comparable, as much as anything else, to a river gorged with ice, and breaking up under the influence of a freshet.  But there was a grander effect than this observable also.  Where the charge in the burrow was heaviest, directly under the rebel work, an immense mass of dull red earth was thrown high in air, in three broad columns, diverging from a single [illegible], and, to my mind, assuming the shape of a Prince of Wales feather, of colossal proportions.  Those near the spot say that clods of earth weighing at least a ton, and cannon, and human forms, and gun-carriages, and small arms, were all distinctly seen shooting upward in that fountain of horror, and fell again in shapeless and pulverized atoms.  The explosion fully accomplished what was intended.  It demolished the six-gun battery and its garrison of one regiment of South Carolina troops, and acted as a wedge which opened the way to the assault.  Our men were to run through this breach, and so beyond upon the second line of works which crown the crest of Cemetery Hill, thus compelling the enemy to evacuate the first line, or, what was more probable, to surrender under the fire of our artillery.

The awful instant of the explosion had scarcely passed when the dull morning air was made stagnant by the thunder of our artillery.  From ninety-five pieces, niched in every hillside commanding the enemy’s position, there belched out sheets of flame and milk-white smoke, while the shot and shell sped forward screeching, howling, rumbling like the rushing of a hundred railroad trains.  But why attempt to give an idea of such indescribable and awful sounds?  The sudden transition from utter silence to fiercest clamor was terrible.  So the rude combat raged for two long hours without sign of slackening.  At first the enemy was slow in replying to our fire, but gradually their pieces were brought into action, and in less than half an hour banks of angry smoke partially veiled the scene from both sides.

In accordance with the plan of battle, the 1st division of the 9th corps (Ledlie’s) was made the assaulting column.  General Ledlie formed his troops in three lines of battle, having each a front of about six hundred.  The 2d brigade of this division (Colonel Marshal) led the assault, followed by the 1st brigade, (General W. F. Bartlett,) and the third line made up of the 3d brigade (Colonel Gould’s.)  The left of Ledlie’s division was supported by Brigadier General Hartraupt’s brigade of the 3d division (Wilcox’s) and its right by General Griffin’s brigade of Potter’s division.  The 4th division of the 9th corps (all negroes) was posted directly in rear of the assaulting column, to press forward whenever practicable.  The 14th New York heavy artillery were the first to enter the breach made by the explosion.  They bounded forward at the word, in the midst of the shock of the artillery, through the dense clouds of flying dust, and clambering over the debris, found themselves violently pushed down into the yawning crater.  The sight which there met them must have been appalling.  Bodies of dead rebels crushed and mangled out of all resemblance to humanity, writhing forms partly buried, arms protruding here and legs struggling there—a very hell of horror and torture, confined to a space fifty feet in length and half as many wide.  But the time was not favorable to the play of humane promptings.  The chaos of mangled humanity, mixed with debris of implements and munitions of war, must be unheeded.  Enough for the storming party to do was found in exhuming two pieces of rebel cannon, with their caissons, and, in obedience to the law of self-preservation, turning these guns upon the enemy, who was throwing into the center a shower of shells and minie balls from the hill beyond, and from points on either side, which they still held on this first line.  Getting these pieces into position promptly, and under cover of their fire, the assaulting column was reformed, and at the word of command, dashing forward once more to storm the crest on the hill.  It was a task too great.  They gallantly essayed it, and nearly gained the summit, subjected all the time to a withering fire, which increased in fierceness at every step until they became the center of a converging storm of shot and shell.  Attacked on the right flank and on the left flank, in front and rear, they were compelled to fall back to the partial protection of the crater, leaving their course thickly strewn with the dying and the dead.

The colored troops, upon the heels of this repulse, were ordered to charge, and they moved out gallantly.  A hundred yards gained, and they wavered.  Then the 89th Maryland regiment, which led, became panic-stricken, and broke through to the rear, spreading demoralization swiftly.  Their officers urged them, entreated them, threatened them, but failed to rally them, and the mass, broken and shattered, swept back like a torrent into the crater which was already choked with white troops.  The confusion, incident to this wholesale crowding and crushing of the negro soldiers into the ranks of the white troops, very nearly caused the panic to spread.  Had such been the result, it might have been fortunate, and many a brave fellow who afterwards fell might have escaped his fate.  But at the moment the rebel fire, which had been murderously directed upon the place, materially slackened, and the white soldiers recovered their stamina.  Our lines [sic] was once more straightened, and just in time to check an impetuous charge, which was afterwards repeated, and with a similar result of heavy loss to the assailants.

So the morning waned.  It became apparent, doubtless, that the position gained could not be held without more sacrifice of life than could well be afforded at this time.  At any rate, this seems a fair inference, or the other corps would have been ordered to advance upon those portions of the first line still held by the enemy, and, as far as I can ascertain, no such order was given.  On the contrary, about noon the order was given to retire—a matter not easy of execution, as to gain our works an open space must be traversed, over which one man in every twenty was sure to be brought down by the cross fire which swept the spot.

I omitted to say that when the negro division advanced to the charge, they were supported on the right of the Prince George Court House road by Turner’s division of the 10th corps, which gallantly advanced a long way beyond the spot where the negroes broke, and strove unavailingly to breast the storm of their retreat.  The list of casualties in this division was heavy.  I forward the names of those in hospital.

The losses on both sides, considering the numbers engaged, were very severe.  The wounded in the hospitals are more than 1,000.  Probably 1,800 were taken prisoners, and the killed would swell the list materially.

The losses in Ledlie’s division are roughly put at from 1,200 to 1,500, though there are no correct means of getting at the facts as yet; competent judges say that the day’s operations have cost us between 4,000 and 5,000 men.

The negro division alone lost 58 officers.

Brigadier General W. F. Bartlett was taken prisoner.  He lost a leg at Port Hudson, and his artificial limb was broken by a mass of earth while he lay in the crater, rendering him unable to move, and his men could not bring him off except at the risk of certain death.