Following the Union Victory of the April 1st, 1865 Battle of Five Forks, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant decided that the time had come for a general assault on the Confederate defenses around Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg had been under siege since mid June of 1864, and the Union Army had slowly been extending the siege lines farther west, stretching the Confederate defenses into a thinner and thinner line. With the capture of the strategic crossroads at Five Forks, the Federals were poised to cut the South Side Railroad, the last supply line for Confederates defending Petersburg. Grant ordered a general assault for dawn on April 2nd to break the siege and capture Petersburg and Richmond.
Major General Horatio Wright’s Union 6th Corps was deployed on the Federal line south and southwest of Petersburg. Wright’s 2nd Division of his corps was under the command of Brigadier General George W. Getty. Getty’s 2nd Brigade of his division, was an all Vermont unit under the command of Brigadier General Lewis Grant. This brigade was made up of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Vermont Infantry regiments, plus the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery, long since converted to infantry. Getty’s brigade made the first breakthrough of the Confederate lines in the assault. Overnight, Confederate forces evacuated both Petersburg and Richmond and headed west. Union forces occupied the two cities on April 3rd. Six days later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Lieutenant Charles H. Anson of the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery was an aide to General Getty and participated in the action that day. Anson had a chance meeting with Abraham Lincoln while performing quartermaster duties in May of 1863 when his regiment was stationed in the defenses of Washington. After the war, Anson recalled the assault and breakthrough of April 2nd, 1865.
Just before the first faint shadows of morning light appeared on the horizon, the startling roar of the signal gun on Fort Fisher announced that the time for action had come. A charge was to be made; a great blow was to be struck; as to the result great expectations were entertained by officers of high grade as well as the rank and file.
A few brief moments, and 14000 veteran soldiers, wearing the Greek cross [the badge of the 6th Corps], closed in mass, stood in readiness for the assault. So far as known, the general, field and staff officers of the 2d Division went into the fight on foot, as it was almost impossible to advance over this ground and the enemy’s works while mounted. As yet the day had not come, darkness hung over them. The enemy, unconscious of danger, little realized that so soon would they be completely overwhelmed, captured, or dispersed.
The 2d Brigade of the 2d Division had been selected to lead the charge; every man understood such to the case; but few orders were given and those in a whisper; guns were loaded, but uncapped, bayonets fixed. They quietly moved forward into the darkness, into the terrible fire, some into the shadow of death, many into the light of the coming day, and on, on to a grand and glorious victory, piercing the enemy’s line, rolling the back on the left and on the right, with a power that was resistless. No word was spoken as they came upon and passed over the entrenched picket line; no sound broke the stillness until the enemy’s pickets, conscious of some power advancing upon them like a mighty ocean wave, with unbroken crest, delivered their fire and ran to cover in disorder. Then went up a shout from twenty-five hundred loyal hearts, taken up and repeated by the on-coming host. The charge was on! The leading brigade pressed forward on the line designated, unconsciously obliquing slightly to the left and into the ravine, not a man flinching, though many considered it a “forlorn hope”. Consternation seized the Confederates within their intrenchments; rushing to their guns a terrible fire of shot and shell, grape and canister, was soon pouring into the advancing columns, especially from the forts located on the right and left of the ravine. Thick and fast came the cannon shot, thicker and faster came the bullets, when, for a moment, perhaps two, possibly ten, the charging column wavered, seemed to hesitate, the cannons’ flashed lit up the terrible scene, revealing the struggling mass as it swayed to the right and left, recovering from the first great shock of battle. Were they, of whom so much was expected, to fail? By one impulse every man sprang forward; the abatis along the front of the enemy’s works was reached, passages quickly made, the ditch crossed, the parapet scaled, while yet their batteries were firing and their infantry line unbroken. While advancing, all formations were broken, each man seemed determined to be in the lead, and, not unlike other instances, many claimed to have been the first to grapple with a Johnny in a hand-to-hand conflict. It has been conceded, however, that the “yellow flag” was among the first borne on to and over the enemy’s works. Again the boys renewed their love and admiration for their banner.
As the Union force passed over and into the enemy’s works, a hand-to-hand struggle took place; most desperately did the enemy defend their position, dealing blow for blow, fighting for, over each gun, using the bayonet freely. Many instances of personal daring might be recorded. One may be mentioned. Capt. Gould, of the 5th Vermont, gaining the parapet, the muzzle of a gun was placed upon his breast, the weapon missed fire, when jumping into the works a bayonet was thrust through his face, for which the assailant received a wound, both falling to the ground, the Confederate killed, the Captain pulling the bayonet from the wound in his face; about this time a blow was dealt on his head with a sabre, and a bayonet pierced his back, making a severe wound. Feeling that he could do no more and gaining the inner face of the parapet, upon which his arms were placed, he had not strength to raise himself out of the works. A sergeant of his company coming upon the works at this moment, seeing the helpless condition of the Captain, dropped his gun, grasped him by the arms to help him out of the works. A Confederate seeing this, caught the Captain from behind, when the sergeant seizing his musket dealt him a deadly blow, then lifting the Captain on to the works, both rolled into the ditch, where they were safe from bullets. How long this struggle continued it would be difficult to determine; it must have been of short duration, for the dawn of day found the enemy yielding this point, giving up that, being forced through and out of their camps. Finally, when resistance was useless, they broke, falling rapidly back a half mile, taking position near the Boydton plank road. At this time all formations were broken throughout the division, yet with joyful hearts they pressed on, not waiting for the divisions on the right or left. After following a short distance a halt was ordered, that company and regimental formations might be made…
A line of battle was formed at right angles with the Confederate works that had been carried by the assault; advancing to the left, capturing or dispersing everything before them. The enemy reversed their cannon in the intrenchments, pouring a heavy fire into the advancing line. It was most difficult to keep the line formed; the troops in their enthusiasm would break away in bodies of from ten to fifty, heedless of commands, charging this point or that, wherever the enemy attempted to make a stand. On the right a Captain, with twenty or thirty men following, charged upon a body of the enemy defending two field pieces, capturing the guns, ten officers, and sixty-two men. At another point a gun was captured, wheeled about, and the shot designed to check our advance went plunging into the ranks of those who a moment before had been its masters. A Major and Lieutenant with a few men captured two guns, wheeled them about to fire but no primers could be found. The pieces were discharged by firing their muskets into the vent. These instances are historical facts. Thus the disorganized troops drove the enemy four miles until Hatcher’s Run was reached, when there were no more Confederates to capture or disperse, no more guns to take.
It was now about ten o’clock. Regiments and companies were re-formed, the victorious troops commenced their march towards Petersburg in parallel columns, passing along just behind the enemy’s works that had been such a dread so many months….When within about three miles of the city, a heavy force of Confederates was seen forming to contest the further advance of the Federals. The 6th Corps was deployed, the 2d Division on the left with its right resting on the Boydton plank road. Batteries went into position on its right, replying to a heavy fire from the Confederate artillery. The troops of the division were partly protected from this fire by lying down just over the crest of a ridge. This artillery duel lasted for a short time, when the General ordered a charge….
The charge was successful, the enemy was driven from his position, many prisoners were taken as well as the battery in position near the Turnbull House, where had been Gen. Lee’s headquarters but a short time before. From this position the line was advanced with but slight opposition to within a mile of the city, when the weary, hungry troops sought the rest so much needed, having been under arms for twenty and engaged in battle sixteen hours. Many brave men had fallen, many were suffering, many had shed their life’s blood in this last great battle of the war. It was a grand victory, and those who took part will ever remember with just pride the assault on the lines of Petersburg, April 2d, 1865.
The Captain Gould of the 5th Vermont that Anson referred to was Captain Charles Gould. He recovered from his wounds and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Major William J. Sperry, commanding the 6th Vermont, led the group that captured the artillery that was fired by shooting muskets into the vents of the guns. Sperry was also awarded the Medal of Honor, as was Lieutenant Gardner C. Hawkins of the 3rd Vermont. Hawkins was wounded leading his men in the assault.
“Assault on the Lines of Petersburg April 2nd, 1865” by Charles H. Anson. In War Papers Read Before Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Volume I.
Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor by Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F Keydel.
The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion by A . Wilson Greene
Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau