“Life Given, Not Lost”: Captain Morey’s Final Charge—Part Two

Authored by Edward Alexander
(part two of three)

Following the Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864, in which he claimed the Confederates “broke and run like a flock of sheep with dogs after them,” the Sixth Corps returned to the Army of the Potomac which lay siege to the city of Petersburg. Morey now rose to rank of Captain, in command of Company E. “He was faithful and fearless, and always rigidly abstained from every appearance of dissipation,” wrote Private Wilbur Fisk, “…[and] was considered one of the most reliable officers in the regiment.” The approach of spring and the pending arrival of Sheridan and the cavalry meant the renewal of active campaigning. The Confederates struck the first blow, hoping to slice through the Union entrenchments around Fort Stedman and sever the vital military railroad supplying the army. After a successful counterattack restored the breach, Federal pickets rushed forward all along the lines for miles, probing for weaknesses. When the Sixth Corps seized the rifle pits in between their front and the Confederate fortifications to the southwest of the city along the Boydton Plank Road, Morey noted that “the rebels do not fight as well as they did one year ago.”

The advanced position gave the Sixth Corps ground to stage a frontal assault on the Confederate fortifications, and each day the soldiers expected such orders. “I think I would enjoy being home very much if the war was ended and an honorable peace once more established,” Morey wrote March 31st, “but this little job must be accomplished first and we may look soon for important results.” Highly confident just a few days before, the reality of the task ahead soon set in, “We hope and pray that we may be able to strike the death blow to the rebelion [sic] before many days but perhaps we may fail, yet as we hope for the best and will work hard for it and trust in God the accomplishment of the remainder, now is the time that we need divine assistance, pray for us that we may accomplish all.” Often imploring his family to write to him, Morey concluded this letter with the request to “give my love to each member of the family and all our friends.”

In the dark silence on the night of April 1st, the Vermont Brigade, with the rest of the Sixth Corps, filed between Forts Fisher and Welch, organized into a wedge-shaped formation on the ground recently captured, and prepared to charge the Confederate earthworks beyond. Each of the seven brigades stacked its regiments one behind the next in assault columns with the Vermonters holding the center position, the entire pattern guided by a ravine belonging to one of the many branches of Arthur’s Swamp which dissected the Confederate lines. At dawn of April 2, 1865, the Second Vermont followed right behind the Fifth Vermont and pierced the Confederate earthworks, the first break in the lines encapsulating the city of Petersburg. Plenty of work still remained to be done that day.

After clearing the enemy’s works south to Hatcher’s Run, the Sixth Corps turned around and redirected for the outskirts of Petersburg, following the Boydton Plank Road and the parallel Confederate earthworks, recently taken. Two forts, Gregg and Whitworth, slowed the Twenty-fourth Corps on the right, as the Sixth slowly pushed for the Appomattox River. “Passing the point of attack in the morning, the enemy was met among the hills of that country,” wrote Brigadier General Lewis A. Grant. “The ground between this formation and the city consisted of a series of hills and marshy ravines,” claimed Captain Merritt Barber, “and the enemy were distinctly seen making every disposition of their troops and artillery to contest our advance.” Lieutenant Colonel Ronald A. Kennedy, commanding the 5th Vermont, halted his troops for a moment “for our lines to reform we charged again across the main road, following to the left and in the direction of the road to near the Turnbull house, formerly occupied as Lee’s headquarters.”

Lieutenant Eric L. Ditty, 6th Vermont, noticed “at Lee’s headquarters a battery was posted, which gave us considerable trouble.” With all available infantry deployed elsewhere, defense of Edge Hill rested on William T. Poague’s Third Corps artillery battalion. Poague’s position had orders to “be held to the last moment,” buying time for James Longstreet’s corps, hurrying south from Richmond, to fill the inner defenses of Petersburg. “Guns were plentiful, men and horses scarce,” remembered Poague. “The first assault on this part of our lines was broken and the enemy driven back into the woods along the road.”

Union siege line at Petersburg.
Union siege line at Petersburg.

Lieutenant Charles H. Anson, just promoted that day to the staff of Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division, delivered messages through the barrage to the three brigade commanders. “To ride along the lines amid that terrible storm of shot and shell seemed an impossibility,” he recalled. Some units found partial cover lying beneath the crest of a ridge until additional Confederate batteries began their deadly work, including several on the north bank of the Appomattox. “The enemy poured in a very heavy fire of shot and shell from a battery on our right, which completely enfiladed our lines,” reported Captain Barber, “and a perfect hail-storm of canister from a battery of four guns planted in the garden of the Turnbull house… directly in front.” The rest of the exhausted Sixth Corps extended the line to the river and their own artillery began to deliver counter-battery fire. With the Confederate artillery positions south of the river overlapped, and Longstreet’s reinforcements still rushing to the inner line of works, beyond which the church spires of the city of Petersburg now stood visible in the distance, the Vermont Brigade began the last charge in their last battle of the war.

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