In the trenches at Petersburg

The 13th Regiment, along with the rest of Kershaw’s Division of Anderson’s First Corps, occupied the right-hand half of the Confederate trenches at Petersburg from late June through late July.

According to the First Corps Diary in the Official Records, the division was called out several times to protect the Weldon Railroad, Richmond’s southern lifeline, against Federal raids by Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s cavalry and attacks by the Union Sixth Corps, and on one occasion to protect some arriving trains laden with corn.

There was much sharpshooting on both sides and occasional artillery exchanges across the several hundred yards of neutral ground between the opposing trenches, and some men of the 13th Regiment inevitably were wounded or killed.

“The hostile disposition animating both sides,” First Corps artillery chief Porter Alexander wrote after the war, “seemed, if possible, even aggravated. The daily entry in my note book for six days—from [June] 19th to the 24th, was “Severe sharpshooting and artillery practise, without intermission, day or night.”

Improving the trenches also was a constant activity until, Alexander continued, “We soon got our lines at most places in such shape that we did not fear any assault… We could see that the Federals, too, were working like beavers, & every morning there appeared fresh piles & lines of red dirt thrown up during the night all along their front.”

First Corps staff officer Moxley Sorrel wrote after the war:  “Salients, traverses, bastions, forts, trenches, covered ways, parallel[s], zig-zags, and all the other devices for the taking and defense of fortified cities, were resorted to.”

“The sight of hundreds of Yankees is a common sight,” Private Jerome Bonaparte Yates of the 16th Mississippi in Ewell’s Corps wrote his sister on July 19. “There is hardly a minute in the day or night without a cannon is firing on the line somewhere. The lines are as near as two hundred yards in some places. In our front they are one thousand yards apart. They are on one side of a field and we are on the other. We go on picket duty every seventh day…Firing has been agreed to by all parties as a senseless waste of ammunition, and we boldly stand and look each other in the face from daylight until night, then listen for each other to advance…The boys deal considerable with them for various little articles such as coffee, knives, pipes, writing paper and envelopes.”

But the informal truce didn’t last and “all parties” were soon shooting at each other again. Indeed, the much-diminished 13th regiment (which by then numbered only about 200 men) would suffer 17 casualties by July 25, according to independent historian Jess N. McLean.

The Winston Guards had three killed: Private William George Horton, Private Auston G. Lowery, and Corporal Joseph C. Brewer; The Wayne Rifles had two wounded: Private John J. Golden and Private Squire Grayson; The Kemper Legion had two killed: Private Calvin H. Evans and Private John E. McCoy, and Private William A. Lang was wounded; The Newton Rifles had two casualties: Private John G. Gilbert who was killed and Private Willis N. Norman who was wounded;

The Alamutcha Infantry had two wounded: Private Elihu Bullock and Private Jesse L. Cranford and Private George A.T. Leake was captured; The Lauderdale Zouaves had one man killed: Private John R. Currie; The Spartan Band had two men wounded: Sergeant T. Benton Clark and Private Joseph Smith Waldrop; and Private John Maggard of The Pettus Guards was killed.

This could have been only the beginning. As historian Edwin Bearss recently said in an interview about his new book on the campaign:

“The Petersburg armies were in combat to one degree or another every day, and every day men were killed or wounded, from June 15, 1864 to April 2, 1865. That is more than eight months. That represents by far the longest period during the Civil War in which armies were eyeball-to-eyeball. They built miles and miles of trenches, and while the men manning them shot at one another…”

Early on, the Yankees sought to increase the Rebel casualties by bringing up heavy mortars—including the famed 17,000-pound, 13-inch Dictator—and commencing a daily bombardment of the Rebel trenches. Soon the Rebels had smaller mortars of their own, Alexander recalled, and the bombardments became mutual.

Meanwhile, Alexander asked ordnance officers in Richmond to prepare “a large lot” of hand grenades.

“They were thin, iron shells,” he explained, “about the size of a goose egg, filled with powder & with a sensitive paper percussion fuze in the front end, & a two foot strap, or strong cord, to the rear end. A man could swing one of these and throw it 60 yards & they would burst wherever they struck.”

Fortunately, the 13th Regiment would not have to endure this sort of thing—with its attendant squalor and constant tension—for very long. They would soon be on the move again.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
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