Writes from siege trenches before Petersburg, describes 17 June assault on Rebel fortifications.
Head Qrs. 3d Brigade, 1st. Div. 9th A.C.
Battle Field of Petersburg, Va.
June 18th, 1864
Dear [Mr. David T.] Richards, ♠
Thanks to a merciful God I am permitted once more to write to you. Since daylight of the 17th we have been under the severest fire of the war. We took up our march from Cold Harbor across the Peninsula to James River, below Harrison’s Landing, made the crossing and marched here in a roundabout manner, without any rest scarcely, arriving to repel an attack made on our center. This was the night of the 16th.
On the following morning before daylight, we advanced on the enemy, across a field of thick underbrush, commanded by a galling fire of two batteries on a hill in front. We gained the ravine and laid there, under a severe fire for some 10 or 12 hours. At 5:30 last night our Division was formed in the ravine to carry the enemy’s works in our front. It is impossible for me to begin to describe to you the terrible charge attended with enormous loss, but we drove them and occupied their works to be driven out and again retaken by us. Our ammunition gave out and we held our ground at the point of the bayonet all last night.
Our ammunition gave out and we held our ground at the point of the bayonet all last night.
This morning the enemy is retreating along his whole line. We also gained the R.R. The 2nd. Pa. Artillery is under the command of a Captain, 3 of the companies under command of Sergeants, and one Company even under a Corporal.—- Our color bearer was shot, and two more who succeeded him were shot also.
Our loss last night in the space of some 40 minutes (in the Regiment,) is 6 commanding and 207 enlisted in killed, wounded and missing. But I cannot see how any one of us lived in such a perfect hail storm of shell, grape and canister, as we received in the charge. I felt while our Brigade was forming for this charge that I would never write old Hyde Park again, and farewelled with all that was dear to me.
Our boys advanced at trail arms double quick with a loud cheer, across a corn field of some seven hundred yards, and in all that distance the rebels poured into us like hail. The air was thick, but we fired not a gun, until within dead range, one volley, then the dry, hard bayonet; they left then I can tell you. They again advanced on our flank, but only gained their ground to be driven out of them. I am just now Asst. Adj’t. Gen. of the Brigade. Our Lieut. Col. commands it.
I could hardly keep from crying this morning at the terrible sight across the cornfield to see so many of my dear old comrades killed and wounded — to see men who were talking with me last evening, this morning thrown into the trenches. Davis was not present in the charge; he was detailed on duty with the ammunition train. Very lucky was he indeed.
I could hardly keep from crying this morning at the terrible sight across the cornfield to see so many of my dear old comrades killed and wounded.
The scene of our Division starting off in this charge was indeed a glorious sight. When we all lay on our bellies in the field out of the worst fire, the bursting of shells and hissing of shot by the thousands was enough to make any man think seriously of running 700 yards on an enemy entrenched (on) the other side, but when attention was given, up goes every one of us at once, then trail arms, double-quick, march and a cheer, the officers all in front, waving their swords and rallying the men. Now and then the line would make a break, but the glorious example set by the officers brought them right up to their work, and they did it handsomely. The Rebels lay in their works 3 and 4 thick.
I send herewith some papers I picked up on the field. I am too fatigued to say more now than good bye to you all, hoping that again, in the battle of the morrow I shall be spared to write you again. My love to all of you.
Yours, with much regard, — William B. Phillips
LETTER 29 NOTES
♠ This letter was published in the Pittston Gazette on 14 July 1864 under the heading, “Interesting Letter” and with the following preamble: “We have been permitted to publish the following letter received by Mr. David T. Richards, of Hyde Parke, from a very intelligent young man, formerly a clerk to Mr. R’s store.”
In the summer of 1892, Margaret Richards — the wife of David Thomas Richards and a sister-in-law of William Davis — submitted an affidavit to the Pension Bureau on his behalf claiming that she hoped it might show he was “fully worthy of recognition as a brave soldier.” She also included an excerpt of a letter that the family received from Adj. William B. Phillips written on 1 July 1864 near Petersburg. That excerpt follows:
Occasionally we have an artillery duel, the most brisk happened last night, during which we advanced our skirmishers & picket line. In the melee, my friend & brother Davis got hit in the shoulder. But thank God, it is only a contusion, but very sore. I was by him at the time it knocked him down but he got up at once, and I helped him to my quarters. After the thing was over he tells me, “By Jove, Will, I thought a locomotive hit me.” Davis is in command of Company C — all the officers of the Battery being killed or wounded. I look back to May 3rd and recall the appearance and number of our Regiment 1400 strong marching through Alexandria for the front, to compare it today is very sad. Only 813 rank and file. Where are they? A sacrifice offered up on every battlefield from the Rapidan to the Appomattox.”