Saturday, July 13, 2019

Petersburg Forts

          My wife and I went to Petersburg on the 4th of July.  More than a year earlier, I went with my friend Brett, and we followed the route of the Army of the Potomac from Spotsylvania, to the North Ana river, and then, eventually down to Petersburg.  We stopped at each location and did some exploring on foot.  At Petersburg we found the field opposite what became known as Fort Crater, where the 13th MA with their Division rolled into a steep railroad cut under enemy fire on June 19, 1864.  They had 1 month left to serve before their 3 year enlistment expired.  Only about 80 of the original 1,000 men were present in the ranks at that time.

         At Petersburg, we took a walk down the Jerusalem Plank road, probably the very same road the happy soldiers traversed to begin their long yearned-for journey home to Massachusetts.  On this trip we also found Fort Warren, later changed to Fort Davis, the fort the 13th Mass helped construct, and the very location from which they departed for home.  It was their last position on the front lines.

       I returned this year to capture some of these places with photographs, something we forewent on that initial exploratory trip.  And, we returned nearly 155 years to the day that the regiment left the front for home.   The temperature hovered around 100 degrees on July 4th, so my wife and I didn’t walk around too much, but we got to experience the same weather the soldiers experienced. 

       What follows are some excerpts from the history of the regiment, "Three Years in the Army";  by Charles E. Davis, Jr., and a few pictures.

"Saturday, June 18, 1864.
     Advanced at daybreak and found the rebels had abandoned their line of last night ; our brigade, which was in the first line, passing over the dead bodies of both armies that laid in our path, driving the enemy’s skirmishers about a mile, when we came in sight of the rebel earthworks.  We then halted and threw up works for our own protection.

Pictured is Fort Morton, looking to what became known as Fort Crater in the distance.  From here the regiment/brigade made the charge described below:

     "We soon made another advance across a field toward the railroad.  A deep cut, dug out for the railroad, passed through the hill about one hundred and fifty yards in front of us, to gain which we had to run the gauntlet of musketry and artillery from the enemy intrenched on a hill the other side of the railroad.  

The Field that was passed through to the deep railroad cut.  The Confederate line was in front of "Fort Crater" in the distance.  They had a clear shot at the approaching Yankees.  I wanted to take a photo from the edge of the cut but the weeds and brush were too high to pass through comfortably.  Plus it was 100 degrees.

     "Word was passed along that a dash was to be made, under fire, directly into this cut, and it was done.  As the men in the front line reached the edge of the cut, fifteen feet high, they jumped over the edge into the soft yielding sand, followed by the men in the rear lines, who came tumbling on top of the first line, before the men could extricate themselves from their uncomfortable predicament, rolling over each other clear to the bottom.  A more ludicrous sight could hardly be imagined in spite of the seriousness of the occasion.   The lines were reformed in the cut.

     Pictured is the railroad cut where today's park road crosses the track.  The cut was deeper in 1864, but some idea can be grasped of the soldiers tumbling over one another as they jumped into the cut and rolled to the bottom.

     "The Thirteenth was then deployed as  skirmishers and marched out of the cut by the right flank partially protected by scattering woods and a ravine, then faced to the front and advanced up the side of the hill where the enemy was intrenched, and where we halted and worked all night throwing up breastworks.  The enemy could be distinctly heard doing the same thing on the top of the hill.

     "A gully made by heavy rains was soon found in this ploughed field extending from the bank of the river to the upper line of earthworks.  This we deepened and extended so as to form a sunken way that could be safely traversed.

     "This hill was afterwards known as “Fort Crater.”

     "We were expecting to make a charge at half-past seven O’clock on the works in front of us, but it was abandoned.

This is the reverse view of the field the Federal Troops charged over into the rr cut.  The picture was taken from the Confederate skirmish line in front of Fort Crater.  The chimney in the center background is the Taylor House ruins. Fort Morton is on the right edge of the field in the background.

     "We had six men wounded.  In building our works, we utilized the dead bodies of the rebels by burying them in the earth which we threw up from the trenches, serving the double purpose of burial and increasing the size of the breastworks.  

"Sunday, June 19. 
     At daylight we found ourselves within a hundred and fifty yards of a rebel fort, high above us on the crest of the hill, with guns staring us in the face.  The rebels were unable to depress their artillery sufficiently to trouble the skirmish line so near them, but the infantry made it lively for us.  Any portion of a human body exposed above the earthworks was sure to draw a perfect shower of bullets.

     "That they might waste as much ammunition as possible, we frequently tried that old gag, so often told, of raising a cap above the works by means of a ramrod to attract their fire.  Collecting the guns of the men who had been killed or wounded, we extracted the ramrods and fired them over into the enemy’s works.  The enemy soon discovered what made the peculiar noise and returned the compliment, until both sides became tired of the novelty.  We had five men wounded during the day." –– END QUOTE.


     After getting these pictures, we proceeded to the site of Fort Davis.  I wanted to go inside the fort, but a nasty moat surrounds it, which prevented climbing up the overgrown sides.  There are some good mentions of this fort from Charles Davis, Austin Stearns and Sam Webster, from which I quote below.

From "Three Years In The Army" by Charles E. Davis, Jr.

"Monday July 11.
     The enemy taking advantage of the quiet which prevailed to-day, and the carelessness that occurs on such occasions, suddenly opened fire with artillery.  For a few minutes the scene was very lively.  Nobody of our regiment was hurt, thought the colonel of the Thirty-ninth Massachusetts was killed. (Col. P. Stearns Davis).

     "At night the regiment was moved back to assist in building Fort Warren, afterward Fort Davis, in honor of the colonel of the Thirty-ninth.

"Wednesday July 13. 
     Still at work on the fort, which was laid out so as to be, when completed four hundred feet square.  It was hard work and continued night and day, the men being relieved every two hours for rest.  It took eight men to get one shovelful of dirt from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the work, the men standing on little niches cut in the side and passing the earth from one to another." –– END QUOTE.

Austin Stearns told a good story about this fort.  He wrote:

     "July 13 “My birthday, and the fourth one since I have been in the service. Spent the day in looking at the works and watching the colored men work.

     "…We are quartered inside the Fort, which is a large five sided one, containing about 2 acres, with a traversee running through the middle.  We are behind the traversee, and as our time is about out we do not feel like work.  I was up on the ramparts watching the Colored men work when Gen’l Warren and Crawford came along.  I heard Warren tell Crawford that he must have some traversees put in on that side, for if the Rebs should shell it there would be nothing to protect the men.  A little while after I saw Rawson up there taking his ease, for it was a great deal cooler there then down in the centre where there was not a breath of air; and the sun pouring down his hottest rays.  Giving Sanborn the wink, and going up so Rawson could hear, I said to Al, “Did you hear what Gen’l Warren told Crawford.”

     “No,” said Al, “what is it?”  “Well,” said I, “Warren told Crawford that if the Rebs should open fire this would be a very unsafe place to be in.”  Rawson said nothing, but got up and went down into the Fort, and didn’t go a rod away from the traversee all day.  I really pitied him.  We boys stayed up, laying around where there was a shade while Rawson lay down, pretending to be asleep in the sun.

     "A brigade of Penn troops were sent to work chopping down the trees in front of the fort.  They went to work in a very systematic manner, cutting the trees part way down and then cutting one at the edge and having it fall on the others, would take down an acre or more.

     "July 14  “Received orders last night to pack up, and turn over our recruits and reenlisted men to the 39th Mass and go to the rear.  …At last, just before sunrise, all was arranged and we were permitted to depart…  We marched from the fort with eighty guns, but when we reached the rear and the teamsters, detailed men, and sick and wounded reported, we had a very respectful regiment."  –– END QUOTE.

I am standing in front of the historical marker for Fort Davis, Petersburg.  The high overgrown bank behind me is the south wall of the fort.  A moat runs around the outside walls.  I'm holding a copy of a map Sam Webster drew in one of his memoirs, with a diagram of the fort, that shows where the 13th MA lined up inside, before marching off to go home.  That spot as indicated on Sam's map, would be inside the fort, directly on the other side of the wall where I am standing.

Sam Webster wrote:

"Thursday, July 14th, 1864

     At sunrise this morning, as the 13th marched out of the Sallyport, I was being transferred to the 39th Mass.   …Lt Rollins, Acting Adjutant, whom I messed with when I joined Co. D, turned us over (some 25 or 30, mostly “substitutes,” but a few old recruits and re-enlisted men) to the Adjutant of the 39th, and then commencing at the left bade them all goodbye…..”