The most rewarding experience for a public historian is the opportunity to tell a story to visitors whose ancestors were on that exact spot. This year I have retraced the 42nd Virginia Infantry’s assault on Forts Stedman and Haskell with descendants of a doomed 40 year old farmer captured in the attack. I also walked the route of the 126th Ohio Infantry with a nice midwestern couple as they drove in the Confederate pickets on Petersburg’s western front in the same day’s fighting. Sometimes visitors reciprocate my effort with information I had never seen before, like the North Carolinians whose ancestor’s letters continue late into the Petersburg campaign–a scarce primary resource to find from ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865. Other times I can only point to the steel mill that today stands on McIlwaine Hill as the closest landmark for a Georgia family to connect with their past.
This weekend when I overheard “Company H, Fifth Vermont” from the museum lobby I had to drop everything to investigate. Of the forty-six regiments belonging to the Sixth Corps on April 2, 1865, the file on the Fifth Vermont Infantry is by far the largest in the archives. Many of these accounts are from members of Company H, a storming party numbering only fifty strong who first successfully broke through the Confederate earthworks on the decisive day at Petersburg.
Early in the morning on April 2nd, Major General Horatio G. Wright deployed his corps in a wedge-shaped formation at an advanced position gained from the successful skirmishing a week before. He selected the Vermont Brigade to lead the assault, the rest of the corps deploying en echelon to the right and left. With the attack stepping off at 4:45 in the morning, the Vermonters relied upon a small branch of Arthur’s Swamp as a physical guide in the darkness. By keeping their left flank in the ravine, the Vermonters knew they could feel their way to the weak marshy spot identified on the Confederate lines defended by James Lane’s North Carolinians. Wright feared that assault would bog down if his men attempted to engage in a firefight and ordered the first wave of troops to remove the caps from their rifles and rely solely upon the bayonet. The sharpened steel of Fifth Vermont Infantry formed the spearhead for the Green Mountain boys.
“Company H, Fifth Vermont,” an elderly man in his ninetieth year told his family as I eavesdropped on their conversation, “I believe they should have been around here somewhere.” Indeed they were–they are the reason this park is here.
I introduced myself to the gentleman and inquired about this particular interest. His great-grandfather, Sergeant William P. Kimberly enlisted into the regiment on August 22, 1861. The nineteen year old blue-eyed, light-haired farmer hailed from Brandon, Vermont. The visitor never met the man but Kimberly’s wife Ann lived until 1929. He did have a brief recollection of her. The man was very well read on the Petersburg Campaign and wanted to see where his ancestor fought. He brought along his daughter and grandson to share the family heritage. We loaded up on a shuttle and I whisked them off to join the Vermonters in the Arthur’s Swamp ravine.
Surgeon Samuel J. Allen watched the assault from Fort Welch, undoubtedly preparing for his grim work to begin. As he peered desperately into the darkness he only heard the muffled tramp of feet as the columns set off for the Confederate lines. With the Vermonters only several hundred yards away from their objective, rifle flashes from a few alert sentries betrayed their position and Allen witnessed the Confederate lines erupt in flame. For half a mile along the earthworks he saw: “a line of flashing fires, crackling, blazing and sparkling in the darkness, more vividly lighted up by the heavier flashes of artillery, while shells, with their fiery trails, sped forward through the gloom in every direction.”
A lieutenant in the charge confirmed the surgeon’s fears. “The cannons’ flash lit up the terrible scene,” he wrote, “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?” Several rows of abatis delayed the attackers as they strained forward under fire. The ravine veered slightly to the left just before it dissects the earthworks and a battery situated directly to their right delivered a devastating enfilade fire. Most of the brigade obliqued to the right out of the ravine hoping to find relief from the storm of lead. Someone in the rear cried out, “Bear to the left!” to correct them, but Captain Charles Gilbert Gould, commanding Company H still in the low ground, misunderstood that suggestion as his directive and plunged across the swamp towards the left. “The officers rushed ahead without looking back to see whether the men were following,” worried a Vermonter as only a handful kept Gould’s pace approaching the earthworks. “I could not have run faster to save my life,” another testified. As the young lad deftly ascended to the top he found himself hopelessly outnumbered.
“My appearance upon the parapet was met with a leveled musket, which fortunately missed fire,” Gould recounted, but as he jumped in among the defenders he felt sharp pain and swift blows as Confederate infantrymen pounced upon him in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Lieutenant Robert Pratt hustled up the wall to Charlie’s assistance, observing: “Captain got a bayonet wound through cheek, a saber cut across his head, a bayonet wound in back & stroke of a musket on the shoulder and across the breast, but while they were doing this he killed two of them.” Henry Recor finally pulled Gould back over the wall and the few who kept them up with the youthful captain fought desperately to maintain their foothold on the parapet. “Come on boys, the works are ours!” shouted Corporal Charles A. Ford in encouragement before a gun shot instantly killed him.
Most of the Fifth Vermont worked their way laterally across the abatis fronting the earthworks until they finally found a gap in the obstructions used by the Confederate pickets to move in and out of the fortification. A cannon rolled temporarily into position to cover this narrow opening threatened to annihilate the storming party, but Pratt swiftly worked his way down the wall and with his sword cut down the gunner just before the cannoneer yanked the lanyard for one last point blank shot into the swarming ranks. Once on the Confederate side of the earthworks the Vermonters enjoyed a considerably easier time, and their numerical superiority quickly overpowered the Tarheels.
Surgeon Allen observed from a mile away as the fire subsided: “Suddenly in the middle of it there appeared a tiny black spot, a narrow gap, which spread and widened, moment by moment, to the right and left.” The efforts of this first band of Vermonters, including Bill Kimberly, enabled successive waves to funnel in on the seized foothold and sweep up and down the works. Within fifteen minutes the stars and stripes waved triumphantly along the line. Many Confederates threw down their arms in surrender and those who remained only delayed the Union army’s tightening noose around Petersburg until nightfall closed the day’s fighting. With all the railroads into Petersburg now cut, Robert E. Lee realized Richmond had lost its connection with the rest of the dwindling Confederate nation and ordered the abandonment of both cities. In just one week’s time, Lee would surrender his army as well.
As I told the story of Fifth Vermont’s assault this past Saturday, the ferocity of the hand-to-hand combat shocked the daughter and grandson, but the older gentleman nodded along, evident that he too had read many of the same accounts. As he later walked into the museum to view the Bible carried by Captain Gould in the charge, the younger two pulled me aside and beamed about how he had long talked about wanting to visit the site where his great-grandfather helped bring the American Civil War to a decisive conclusion–a major item the aging man had left to cross out on his bucket list.
I could only feel honored to have the opportunity to share in those stories daily.