91st PA: Walter, part 10

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 10

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[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #48 p.2 continued]

We had a short rest on the south bank of the James, and then in the night, moved back across the country till we neared Petersburg, not far from what soon became well known as Cemetery Hill. Our position here was near the 9th Corps. There did not seem to be much going on in the early morning, but we soon learned there had been hot work there on the previous day. I think it was near the middle of the forenoon when our brigade advanced, being formed in line of battle, soon passing a line of our troops that were occupying the first line of rebel defenses. The country was undulating and pretty much cleared. A field from which the grain had been harvested was in front of us, and we moved briskly across it, quickly drawing a salute from a Confederate picket-line, that then fell back. On we went, and directlly [sic] our regiment came to a short railroad cut, some twelve or fourteen feet deep. This stumped us for a moment, but we sprang into it and with a good deal of agility mounted to the other side. [A contemporary anonymous account also mentions this cut, but claims it was 40-50 feet deep; perhaps the depth varied greatly.] Here we came to a halt because the rest of the brigade had ceased to advance. Just in front of us was a small valley and creek, and then a steep rise in the ground for a couple of hundred yards or more. All along the creek was a strong line of breastwork, strongly occupied. In front of the brigade these works were in a line that represented nearly a quarter of a circle, so that in advancing we would encounter an enfilading fire on each flank, as well as a deadly fire in front. The force we had there was fearfully inadequate to charge such a position. There we remained in line, mostly lying flat, for a half hour or longer. Our company was the right of the line and a good deal exposed, so that rebel sharpshooters made it very uncomfortable for us. A comrade of Co. F was killed beside me [Four soldiers in company F were killed on 18 June 1864: David Hall, Patrick Cahill, Henry Gray, and Samuel Lamb.] , and a member of an Ohio regiment, whose presence we could not account for, but who was very close to my place, died instantly, many of us hearing the thud of the bullet as it entered his scull [sic]. We could do no effective firing in return, and after a half dozen more had been struck, we got out of this trying position, moving to a sheltered position a little to the left. Some other troops came over, and after some hours delay a new line was formed, after which "forward!" was the order once more. We knew desperate work was ahead of us, but on we went. As soon as we got to the creek or began to ascend the rise, we encountered a very sharp infantry and artillery fire. Our line was still so short that both flanks were terribly exposed. The left of the line soon wavered, halted, and I think, fell back a little. We, on the right, pressed on, several companies of us being favored somewhat by a depression in the ground that we had to move over. We quickly saw that our charge was broken, and down we lay as flat as we could get. We were not much more than a hundred yards from the rebel works. I believe the enemy was badly worn out and felt the need of husbanding their ammunition, or they would have made us get out of that. We were in constant danger, but we stuck like heroes. One of our young recruits, a son of a regimental chaplain, lost his arm, and another received a deadly bullet in the head. Many were struck as the hours wore on, and glad were we when the hot sun went down and the stars began to peep.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #. 49 p.1]
The battle of the 18th of June had ended. As soon as darkness came we went back, a few at a time, and bringing up rails and whatever else could be found, to start a breastwork, crawled forward and put them in place; thus establishing so close to the enemy the line of fortification that menaced them so long. Here, at this very spot, was where the tunneling and mining was done, that resulted in the demolition of a rebel fort nearly opposite later in the summer.

In little squads, too, we went down in to the hollow to make coffee and have a sort of supper; many of us having eaten scarcely anything since the early morning. By eleven o'clock quiet reigned all along the line, and our sentinels having crawled forward to their placed a few paces in advance, we settled ourselves to try for a little sleep. Each of us lay with all our harness on, and our rifles right at our hands. Ours was a very ticklish position, being so near the enemy's works and on ground he knew so well, a strong rally might be made on us in the darkness, and we be defeated in spite of ourselves.

We were still the extreme right of the line, and resting with our flank in the "air," as the saying is. I anchored myself a little to the rear of the company, and our first lieutenant came and lay close beside me. Soon after midnight there came a sudden commotion and excitement, and word flew along that the "rebs" were crossing their works to charge us. The darkness prevented us from seeing more than twenty paces or so, but each man promptly grabbed his rifle and scrambled to his place behind our little barricades, except me. At the first instant of the alarm the lieutenant had aroused, seized my piece and got into line. So when I started up and found him and my musket gone, and that a fierce fight in the dark was the immediate prospect, I took to my heels and ran to the rear. Away I went for a hundred yards and then waited for the action to begin. Only a few scattering shots were heard, and directly I was back with the boys. All hands had been too intent on watching the front to notice my departure or return.

In the early morning we were relieved by other troops, and went to the rear and left to rest in the shelter [of a] railway cut. The 18th of June had been a trying and bloody day with us. Our regimental loss, in killed and wounded, was over eighty, or very nearly one-third of all that were present. Our company lost its share, and twice during the day did I hear the bullets thud as it entered a comrade's skull. All day we rested in hot discomfort from the weather, while the picket and sharpshooters' fire added a worse discomfort to the lives of those who had taken our places on the front.

June the 20th found us still lying in the cut, and the same sort of firing was going on. Bullets often came singing or humming over us, but could not reach us if we stayed near our places. Towards noon the sun got very hot and there was no breeze, so myself and a comrade named Wood [probably Edward Wood], mounted the bank to lie in the shade of some bushes. We had taken our ease for an hour or more, when a bullet from the front drove with terrific force against the blade of my left shoulder. Wood heard it, and asked me, as I turned over, if I was struck. I told him I thought the shot had gone into my lungs, and asked him to probe the hole with his finger to find its depth. The holes made in my jacket and shirt were quite large, but he found none leading into my body. When I thought the bullet had lodged in my lungs, I at once considered the chance of getting over it, and taking into account the hot weather and my worn down condition, concluded the probabilities were decidedly against me. Up we got and went down to the company, where I stripped. It was found that the shot had glanced downward from the shoulder blade, across the spine, giving that a scrape, and then found its way out of my clothes. The missile was of lead nearly two inches long, with very blunt point. It struck me lengthwise and with the power of a stout fellow smiting me with a fence rail.

For several days my lungs were sore from the shock. Our surgeon was at the brigade hospital, a half mile off, so I was advised to go over there to have the wound dressed. The shortest route led over some high, open ground that the rebel sharpshooters could reach. I ventured it and got over safely in spite of several undesired attentions. The The [sic] doctor fixed me up, and being admonished to be more careful in the future, I went back to the command.

Along in the afternoon we moved farther to the left and rear, and finding myself considerably crippled, I rested my rifle against a bush and abandoned it. I did not expect to do any fighting until I got better, and then I would probably be able to pick up another "shooter" somewhere. Then the brigade moved out towards the front again and "felt" the enemy a little, and seemed to make him quite lively for a while. The regiment held an advanced and somewhat isolated position, and I believe when night came, half of it went on picket, while the other half as a reserve bivouacked behind a little barricade in a patch of woods. In the meantime I was taking care of myself, at a pretty safe distance to the rear. I say "a pretty safe distance," because I recollect so well how "tarnal uncertain" how much of the country we soldiered through was in regard to furnishing anything like a genuine refuge. At all seasons of the year, or at any hour of the day or night we were liable to the harrassments of the foe. We might be punctured, or mangled, or "gobbled," without a minute's warning, and it would be nothing strange.

In the morning [probably 21 June] our regiment and a lot of other troops manoeuvred about and stirred up the rebels again. I went forward to learn more about the racket, and getting into a large field, was made the recipient of some attentions from the Johnies, that were more direct than pleasing. I feel back in good order to a small piece of pine woods, but had scarcely arrived there when one of the enemy's batteries made things howl and rip in that particular locality. I held the place, however, and the cannonade soon ceased. Late in the afternoon the regiment came back and camped close by. In the operation of this and the previous day, it had lost several by wounds, but none were killed, I believe. In this camp we remained from the 23d of June till the 20th of July. We were on open ground, and the weather being sultry and dry, crotched posts were put up along each street of the camp, and a lattice-work of crossed poles being formed overhead, covered thickly with boughs, we were shaded for a time in a way that was very agreeable. Our location was about two miles south-west of Petersburg, and three-quarters of a mile south-east of the Jerusalem plank road, at the point that afterward became so celebrated as the location of Fort Hell.

Our second sergeant and I tented together, and having elevated our shelter tent a little, we made a bunk of pine poles and branches, that we often rested on while we read or discussed the affairs of the nation. Meanwhile the troops on the front were extending and perfecting that strong line of earthworks close to the enemy's that was to be one of the prominent features of that great siege. Details of our regiment and other commands near by were invited to exercise with the pick and shovel, and a strong fort was soon visible in the rear of our camp.

The abrasion on my shoulder and spine where the bullet struck me healed rapidly, but as it got well, I began to suffer from a peculiar nervous disorder, that neither disabled me nor allowed me to feel well enough to do a soldier's duty. This was a burning and twitching sensation in the feet and legs, accompanied with lassitude, though my appetite continued good.

Two or three of the redoubts along the rebel line could reach us with their guns, and one in a while would send a little iron over to plague us, but the effect was small. Two-thirds of July had soon sped away, and the regiment went on the front line again. It was over a little distance towards the Jerusalem road, and for several days kept shifting about.

Nothing extraordinary seemed to impend, so I went back and put up again in the camp under the arbor. Division headquarters was near, and a detail from our company was on duty there, while others were often passing, so that I was not lonely. A mining operation began to be talked about, that was being conducted by the 48th Pennsylvania. This [work was only a little more] than a quarter of a mile to the right of us, and behind the very breastwork that our company had established so near the rebels on the 18th of June. The object of the mine was to blow up a strong redoubt and battery the Confederates had opposite. We knew this involved considerable time, work and secrecy, but a new hope came to us that the sirocco of our misfortunes might have spent itself at last, and the strong attack to made [sic] in connection with the explosion might be so successful that Petersburg and Richmond might fall, and the war speedily come to a close.

The hour set for the denouement was known to us, so at daybreak, on the morning of July 30th, I started to be with the boys, and see and do what I might in the emergency. I found that Co. A and Co. F., I think, had been sort of crowded out of the breastworks, and were lying back a little distance, and something nearer the fated fort than the rest of the regiment. They were huddled together in what they called a bomb-proof. This was a hole dug out something like a cellar, and roofed with logs and earth. The cause of this was that the rebels, several days before, had set a battery of two mortars in a hole in the field back of their works opposite, and had been sending shells over occasionally, nearly the size of a man's head. When one of them would sink into the ground and explode, a cartload of dirt would go flying about, and they were most discomforting devils to hear, high over head, going flit, flit, flit, as they turned over and spit fire. When a piece of artillery banged at us, we knew about where to expect its missle [sic], but when one of those things were hurled on its curving way, there was an aggravating uncertainty about whom it was most likely to drop on. Our bomb-proof was much too frail for what was expected of it, but as no very serious mischief had been done us yet, the fellows had lost a good deal of their dread of the things. The 91st Regiment's position on the front line was close to the extreme right of the 5th Corps. Next to our brigade came the division of colored troops, attached to the 9th Corps.

Only a few minutes remained when I got to the company before the fort was to go up. The arrangements were being discussed, and I think no shrewd soldier among us approved of the colored troops making the initial charge or attack. It was not to be supposed that they could keep Lee's army divided or whip it, and capture Petersburg. We were willing the darkies should have their full share of the dangers and hardships of the war, but we wanted neither to fight ahead of them or support them. They had not much experience; our faith in them was weak, and we wanted their share of the service kept as distinct from ours as circumstances would allow.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #50 p.1]
The mine was now to be exploded. The artilleryman stood to their guns in the redoubts along our line, but we of the infantry had not been ordered to fall in when the minute arrived that had been set for the firing of the train. There was some depression in the ground where we lay, so that we could not see well off in the vicinity of the entrance to the mine, although we had a good view of the parapet of the doomed forts from the top of our bomb-proof, where several of us lay to watch for results. We kept our eyes strained, but thirty or forty long minutes got away and a quietness almost oppressive still reigned. We marvelled at the delay and were fearing the attempt had ended in an egregious failure, when there came a heavy thud, and immense masses of the rebel earthwork were hurled upward and tumbled over. Smaller fragments of various kind mounted higher in the air, and a cloud of dust nearly obscured the place as our artillery in the vicinity drove their shot into the enemy's works all along. A tornado of destruction struck the rebels with the suddenness of a flash. Scarcely a man of them had been astir; so the surprise was complete and demoralizing. Some of their pickets rushed into our lines, and their breastwork near the mine was abandoned. Again our eyes were strained, expecting to see our colored comrades go surging across the wreck of the redoubt. A long ten minutes passed away, our artillery slackened its fire, but no blue-clad infantry appeared in the gap. We looked at each other in wonder and dismay, for we felt that some infernal insubordination or incompetency was blasting a more than golden opportunity.

Not less than twenty minutes, though I feel sure a half hour or more had gone before the sound of musketry over there told us the charge had been made. Plenty of time had been given the foe to prepare a deadly reception for the attacking force. Again our artillery thundered at their line of works, and the fight went on under our very noses, as it were, and we, lying about taking it easy. We could not see fast how the contest was going, but in less than an hour the racket had ceased, and we knew that one more disaster to our cause had reached its consummation. We knew [p.2] too, that as usual, the subalterns who endured the suffering, were not to blame. Reports of the whole affair were soon among us. We heard that the commands were sent over without definite instruction, and got mixed and disorganized in and about the "crater." It was said the enemy attacked them from three sides, and our artillery fired into them. Harassed and confused, they made but a slight resistance. Many were shot down where they stood or in trying to get back to our lines. Some were captured, and at once shot by their malignant foes. It was a sickening and villainous affair in nearly all its aspects; sickening in the butchery that took place; villainous in the neglect and stupidity of the high officers of our army, who could have easily made it a brilliant success.

Many dead and wounded lay between the lines, but covered by rebel guns; no one dare approach them as they fairly scorched beneath the fierce summer sun. Night came at last, and though the enemy was intensely vigilant, several of the wounded managed to roll or drag themselves to succor or safety. Another day came and still the wounded and dead sweltered in the sun. This made the bodies so foul that the odor became sickening to all in the vicinity. On the morning of the third day the rebels agreed to their burial, so, seeing a flag of truce flying up at the ruins, our captain asked me if I would walk over with him. I went. A detail from the 9th Corps had dug long, shallow trenches, and the horrible work of dragging the bodies--mangled, bloated, foul and wormy together was going on. Surely this was war in its most awful aspect, and a sight never to be forgotten. A few of the enemy stood upon their works as sort of unconcerned spectators of the progress of the interment. I believe it was a day or two after this, when the rest of the regiment having been withdrawn from the front line, we made another camp, in which we spent several weeks. [probably 3 or 4 August.] This was the most remarkable resting-place of our soldier days. A quarter of a mile to the left, on the high ground forty yards in rear of one of the main redoubts, far from shade and water, we put up our little homes. We were so exposed as to make an excellent target for the four rebel batteries from the Jerusalem Plank Road to the "crater." Rebel riflemen could easily reach us from their works; some heavy guns had us in easy range from Cemetery Hill, and the infernal mortar battery could plump shell among us besides. How was that for giving us a chance for an enjoyable existence? In the midst of this multitude of dangers there was safety; not a man was killed that I know of. When the camp was new the officers wanted the men to make a large bomb-proof, but the weather was hot and the work lagged, so that it never was quite finished, and rarely had any occupants.

However obscure as an organization we may have been in the Union army, we were certainly far from obscure to the enemy at this time. How this could be may seem strange, but their batteries on the front never bothered us; neither did any sharpshooters. The big guns on the hill fired a few shots in our direction to intimidate fort builders that were at work in our rear. The mortars were trained against the darkies, but when they opened, our artillery made the dirt fly around that hole in the field, so that very few shots were fired. In fact we were treated with an amount of consideration calculated to make us feel quite proud and contented. Thought our little camp was a continuous challenge to the enemy and we were unmolested, matters were very different with the colored troops a few hundred yards to our right. The rebels were continually on the alert to annoy and injure them, so much so, that they had to live below ground almost continually.

One day the battery near us opened on some rebel entrenchers up near Fort Hell, when, by standing at the breech of the piece and watching intently along the range, we could see the flying shot when it got several hundred yards away. Most of the shots fell short, and those that made big rips in the ground near the diggers seemed to disconcert them very little. Details of our men spent several days out in that direction, extending and strengthening our works. I fooled about with them one day, and came very near being struck by a section of a shell that came humming along. Reminders of this kind were very common about that neighborhood then, and continued to be for the next six months.

Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #51 p.1]
From near Fort Hell, along towards the Union right, or the James River, our entrenchments and earthworks were so close to the enemy's that we could easily call over to them. This sort of diversion was not allowed, but over in front of us was a little ravine where the pickets met on the sly to do a little trading in coffee, tobacco, newspapers and other comforts. It is said, too, that the "blue and the gray," on more than one occasion at this place, entertained each other with a "little game of euchre."

As the autumn approached we became well aware of the impoverished and forlorn condition of our foes, and opposite our front occurred the first of a series of night forays, that continued through the fall and winter in that vicinity. Our pickets, when they went on the line, usually took haversacks with a lot of rations, canteens, blankets, overcoats or pieces of tent, to increase their comforts. Late in the night a lot of rebels would get together and make a sort of a sally on our fellows, and, if they succeeded in making them fall back, would advance far enough to get any property that might have been left and then scoot back. Of course there was considerable danger in trying to play this caper on veteran troops, but it succeeded sometimes, and their necessities were great.

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revised 5 Jul 03
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