Writes from siege trenches before Petersburg, describes 17 June assault on Rebel fortifications.
Headquarters, Provisional 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery
2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Army Corps
Near Petersburg, Virginia
Fourth of July, 1864 (Evening)
I am exceedingly happy to answer your letter (or wee note) received yesterday. I would scold you for such a puny thing as that was, but, that you were so kind as to put some trouble on something which I prize very highly, and am very, very thankful indeed.
Now my dear, what shall I say? I say that another Fourth is about receding into that eternity, which many of us poor fellows are threatened with, spent, I need not add in not the most agreeable manner, cooped up, and not dare stand up to straighten a stiffened limb without getting a reminder from those fellows over the field, who are very careless in firing their pieces, they may hit a fellow. The only agreeable feature in the day is that we have all day been expecting “to move on the enemy’s works” or at least a lively artillery duel. But I am disappointed even in this. Everything and everyone has been quieter than I have experienced in the campaign. [There is] nothing to be heard but the sharpshooters who, like the wicked, are never at rest. A plague on them.
We had a big treat today. Somebody sent us a barrel of onions and about 200 pickles. The boys have a breath this evening more strong than sweet. If the “ Johnnies ” ever attempt a break tonight, I half believe they’ll be driven back by the rather strong odor of onions.
Since I wrote you last, nothing has transpired in Army matters – only that from there we have advanced some 900 yards. I hardly like this monotonous business of besieging. There is not enough excitement to counterbalance the danger. But I must grin and bear it, take a smoke, and build castles in the air. It’s no use, you know, to despond, but to hope on, hope ever, and make calculations for some good old time I am going to have next winter.
I believe I am a lucky youth. I suppose – if you only saw what the Rebs have thrown at me for the last 60 days – you would think so too. But on that awful 17th [of] June, [the battlefield] was the hottest place yet. ♠ I was so excited, that I knew nothing of the danger. My eyes saw all, in red and flame, but I could not digest it somehow. [The] only thing I knew I was rushing [forward], half carried on by some other power than myself, until I tumbled head and heels in the rebel works, to see the “Johnnies” put through the woods beyond. But I didn’t stay there long, for they rallied and drove us out. But the next time we made them leave, and stay at a respectable distance of some 1000 yards.
My eyes saw all, in red and flame, but I could not digest it somehow.
Fighting is a serious business, Annie. It’s no use for any one to say that he cares nothing for a battle. I do. I don’t like it. But when I am ordered into it, I go. And after getting up my pride a little, I manage to stand up to the scratch as good as anyone – I mean that – when I have to run up on a charge, right in teeth of their batteries. I don’t care half as much when the rebels attack us. Then by George, the shoe pinches on the other foot. My stock in trade to do this business is about an ounce of courage and the balance in pride and honor. With that, I manage to put on a bold face and give the Rebs a dusting now and then.
Now I suppose you will find a good many errors in this letter. Excuse them, my dear, if you please. Those confounded sharpshooters have a particular spike on my headquarters, and the dust flies all over from their shots, fired onto my embankments. That, you know, is not very pleasant. Then those abominable mortars – they are opening again and, from the fact of our lines of battle being between the Rebel Artillery and our own, and both sides working their guns to silence the other, we are in a nice fix.
I am going to get out of this business next winter, as soon as the campaign is over. I believe I can find something more agreeable, where the idea of getting cut up into nobody knows what is not entertained. My love to Sue , and tell her I am expecting a letter from her. There goes another. Phiz, bang.
Write soon. Write often. Love to all. Now I am done.
Goodbye, Good night. My best affection and love,
Yours & Yours, Amen — William
LETTER 30 NOTES
♠ This first-hand account of the assault upon the Confederate defenses northeast of Petersburg is described in more detail by William C. Davis in his book, “Death in the Trenches” published in 1986. After fighting all evening against “stubborn resistance” on June 16, 1864, Hancock’s II Corps called off the attack and the men “dropped asleep in the pits.” But “on the left of the Federal line, Brigadier General Robert P. Potter spent the night getting the two IX Corps brigades [one of which included the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery] into position for a dawn attack. Under cover of darkness they crept down into a steep ravine tangled with felled trees. ‘We were so near the enemy,’ Brigadier General Simon Griffin wrote later, ‘that all our movements had to be made with the utmost care and caution; canteens were placed in knapsacks to prevent rattling, and all commands were given in whispers.’
“With the enemy fortifications looming over them a mere hundred yards away, the men silently formed two lines. Just as dawn began to break on June 17, Potter gave the command: ‘Forward.’ ‘The men rose in a body from the ground,’ recalled Private Henry Rowe of the 11th New Hampshire. ‘Not a gunlock clicked; the bayonet was to do the work.’
“Surprise was complete. The startled defenders awoke to cries of ‘Surrender, you damned Rebels!’ Nearly a mile of the Confederate fortifications fell to the Federals in minutes, along with four guns, five flags, 600 prisoners and 1,500 stands of arms. But the success was limited. Potter’s men pushed forward until they came up against another entrenched line and were forced to halt. Because of the tangled logs in the ravine behind them, which could be swept by enfilading fire from Confederate guns farther to the left, Federal attempts to support and enlarge upon Potter’s breakthrough failed.”
It should be noted that the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery had the ignominious distinction of losing its battle flag during the charge described by William Phillips in this letter. Fortunately, a sergeant-major named George H. Plowman from the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry managed to recapture the flag, earning him the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire, though it cost him a severe gunshot wound to the left thigh and butt.
Writes from siege trenches before Petersburg, describes artillery duel, strength of Rebel fortifications, rumors of Rebel desertions, confidence of ultimate victory.
Headquarters, Provisional 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery
“Front Trenches” before Petersburg, Virginia
July 20, 1864
Your very kind and most welcome letter dated the 14th came this morning and found me in what I consider “in the blues.” Why? Oh, it was an awful day yesterday. It rained that always disagreeable drizzly rain, no shelter, but there to stand, grin and bear it. The peculiar construction of our present quarters, being made in and not on the ground, the water came trickling in at early dawn, and before evening I had to quit my abode — the inundation was too much. Thinks I, “Mr. Adjutant, why in thunder don’t you swear, leave the service, enjoy bedrooms and couches, go home and plant your wet extremities before a cheering, crackling fire at home.” Yes, that would be very pleasant indeed. But – yes but what? It is not very pleasant to be sent home dishonorably dismissed, so the only vengeance I had was to go into the blues and stay so for a week.
All last night I thought of the disaster that made my cave a mud hole, until I was overcome, went out in the midnight air, and took comfort in looking over the parapet at the “Johnies” – all in the same fix. I meditated on that, thinking of the impartiality of the good God towards both armies. He made it equally disagreeable to all. But I had not thought long when I heard the ominous discharge of a 10 inch mortar in my front. I could see the awful missile all aglow with fire ascending gracefully into the black clouds of midnight, then descending down it comes with its ludicrous “I wish I had you” and strikes our parapet, down through our works, and bursts. Thank God, no one killed, only one poor fellow wounded, no groans, no complaint. The silent stretcher bearers carry him to the rear and again the dead stillness of midnight reigns. Not long, again, there goes four at once, and four more mortar shells, with their fiery tails ascend. Where will they strike? Down they come. Look out! Safe – they have passed over and explode 20 yards in our rear, over our own battery of mortars.
Now for some excitement, the Rebs have commenced [the shelling]. We will see who will have to stop first. Up goes the Connecticut boys ♠ and the 2nd Pennsylvania. Fourteen mortars and six 12-pounder Napoleons, are being charged. Out rings the clear voice of the “Chiefs of pieces” – “Ready, Point, Fire” and 20 shell are tearing through the clouds to descend where they are intended to. Our “friends” over the way have woke up the wrong customer and for an hour or so, nothing [is] to be heard but screeching shell and whistling shot. (Excuse that [ink] blot there – an old customer just passed over again.) That is what we call an “Artillery duel.” ♣ We invariably get the last shot though. In these duels there are very few casualties owing to the men being able, especially at night, to avoid the shell from the time it is discharged to the time of striking 8, 10, or 15 seconds.
Mortars are very harmless provided you are awake and watch them. But then a man can’t do that always. We can sleep comfortably in our works and defy cannon and rifled guns, their elevation being at the highest only 5¾ degrees, but those mortars are thrown 45 degrees or about this [picture drawn] and of course descend right into our works. They are of about this shape [picture drawn]. I hate their looks. Confound them. The only comfort a soldier has [is] when he can lay down and forget his troubles, but them blamed things has stopped that also.
The Rebels in our front are very strong and we can’t get them out by storming their works. Two deserters came into our line yesterday and told the General that Longstreet ♥ was massing right in front of the 9th Corps and that an assault [was planned] and our works are to be stormed. Since then the men are only allowed to sleep 4 hours, one half of them having to be up and awake during from 8 to 12, the other from 12 to 4, when all are up.
A Rebel deserter fooled us about 4 nights ago. He came in and told us that Finnegan’s Brigade of North Carolinians would desert in a body and deliver themselves up to us, if 3 rockets were only thrown up from General Warren’s Headquarters at 9 P.M. that day. They were thrown up, but no Rebels came in. Since then, I put those stories of rascally rebel deserters at a very low figure, but then it is best when they talk of massing troops to prepare for them. I would be safe if on the wrong toes, that’s wiser than to be careless and get licked. We have not been whipped yet and we won’t be whipped. The boys are in high [spirits] hoping that the Rebs will charge on them for they want to pay off for the murder of the 17th June. If they came up in 6 lines of battle, they could never come near our works.
Dearest Annie, so far I have written out doors but for a hour back, they have been shelling so furiously that I had to “hunt my hole” and here I am, a picture to be sure. My boots [are] ankle deep in slough and mud. [I am] sitting on an ammunition box trying to write by sticking my neck out of the hole to get some light and continually ducking it to save it from being “detached.”
I wish I was home. No doubt you folks are wondering why the Army of the Potomac don’t move.” If you hear anyone say that, send one of them down here and I’ll conduct him to our picket… (that blue there, well, a shell burst on my abode – nobody hurt but half a dozen scared). I wish they would stop. We have the “Sassy Battery” ♦ on our right and it annoys the Rebs so much that they must shell it. If they had good line fire, they would not hurt me, but the Rebs happen to fire promiscuously, and of course a man is as safe in one place as another.
I can’t tell you when I can come home, for I can’t say when the campaign will be over. It may last another 3 months. The Army of the Potomac consider this the hardest campaign of the war. All the other campaigns lasted only a few weeks. But this, we have not been from under fire since the 3rd of May – now nearly August – and about a week ago we received orders to commence the siege. And in front of Burnsides and Warrens Corps, seiging is a dull business and soldiers hate it, for it has all the dangers of a battle without the excitement.
I do verily believe that I would enjoy a week or two up in Hyde Park. What a blessing it would be, to be sure, to go around and about, to enjoy your society and caresses, without having to be disturbed by Rebel shot & shell, to feel certain when I lay down to rest that I am safe from harm as far as lead and iron is concerned. How I would enjoy it, to ramble over the fields and woods in peace and quiet, conscious of the fact that there are to be no more assaults to repel, no charges to be made, no more digging of holes in the ground to keep the body from harm, no rebellion, no war, [last page missing].
[Yours always, — William B. Phillips]
LETTER 31 NOTES
♠ The “Connecticut Boys” probably refers to the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery.
♣ A Union sharpshooter attached to the 2nd Corps described the artillery duel before Petersburg when he wrote that “Shells are flying backward & forward most of the time in the front line. But the 2nd Corps are not troubled with them, being so far in the rear.” On July 25, 1864, in a letter that he wrote to his brother, he added that, “Mortar Batterys are at work in the 9th & 18th Corps all the time. I was there the other night & in plain sight of the guns on both side & I assure you, it was a splendid sight to see. The mortar shells in the air going to & coming from the enemy. These shells are round & go far in to the air & drop straight down & while in the air a stream of fire can be seen while the fuse is burning. In the night they look very much like fire works. But few men are injured on our side by them. Most of the trenches have bomb proofs for the men to run under.” Source: Letters from a Sharpshooter, The Civil War Letters of William B. Greene, Co. G, Berdan’s Sharpshooters, page 238.
♥ It may not have yet been common knowledge by the Union troops in the field that General Longstreet had been accidentally shot by his own men in the Wilderness and that Maj. General Richard Anderson has assumed command of the Second Corps.
♦ The term “Sassy Battery” is not familiar but it is likely to refer to black infantrymen of Ferrero’s Fourth Division in the IX Corps who were entrenched to the right of the First Division. Their presence was known to infuriate the Confederates and resulted in their being targeted more than others on the opposing line.