The Anatomy of a Charge

Currier & Ives - The Battle of PetersburgRecently I have been researching various Civil War frontal assaults to help put the decisive April 2, 1865 storming of the Petersburg lines into perspective for my upcoming book Dawn of Victory. I encountered an interesting piece written August 15, 1864, by Ohioan Henry Otis Dwight, while in the trenches outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Harper’s Magazine published his article later that October and it paints a more somber picture of an attack against a fixed fortification than that supposedly experienced the following year by the Sixth Corps in Virginia. Yet the Vermont Phoenix still decided to reprint Dwight’s description of combat in the April 28, 1865 issue which featured its own correspondent’s account of the Breakthrough at Petersburg. Perhaps the editor hoped to remind a jubilant public flush with victory of the true face of battle.

One reads in the papers of the assaults on earthworks, of the repulses, and yet one does not know what is contained in these words—“Assault repulsed.” You make up your mind to assault the enemy’s works. You have formed a line of battle, with second and third lines behind you for support. You march forth filled with the determination to accomplish the object, yet feeling the magnitude of the undertaking. Two hundred yards brings you to the picket line, and here the operation commences. You dash across the open space between the two lines, you lose a few men and the enemy’s pickets, after making as much noise as possible, run back to their main works.

By this time the enemy are sure to you are really coming and open on you with artillery, besides a pretty heavy fire of musketry. This artillery throws the shell screaming through your ranks, producing more moral than physical effect, or, throws shrapnel, which, bursting in front, scatter myriads of bullets around. You commence to lose men rapidly. The ball is opened. “Forward, double-quick” again; and while the whole line of the enemy open fire from behind their works, your men, mindless of this—mindless of the death intensified, the bullets and the shells—dash on with wild cheers. The abatis with its intricacy of sharpened branches snares your line. Tripping, falling, rising to fall again, the men struggle through this abatis. You get through the abatis, though the minutes are drawn out interminably, and though in each step are left brave men to pay for the ground.

You get through, a part of you, and still rush on; the firing grows more fierce, the men grow more desperate. Your three lines have been almost reduced to one, and you strike another line of abatis. In this abatis are the palisades, which must by uprooted by force before a man can pass. You stumble, fall, tear your flesh on these stakes, you must stop to pull them up—stop, when you are already gasping for breath; and here open up the masked batteries, pouring the canister into that writhing, struggling, bleeding mass—so close that the flame scorches, that the smoke blinds from these guns. Is it any wonder that your three lines are torn to pieces, and have to give back before the redoubled fire of an enemy as yet uninjured, comparatively? And then the slaughter of a retreat there! Oftentimes it is preferable to lie down and take the fire there until night, rather than lose all by falling back under such circumstances.

Kurz & Allison - Fall of Petersburg

This war has demonstrated that earthworks can be rendered nearly impregnable on either side against direct assault. An attack on fortified lines must cost a fearful price, and should be well weighed whether the cost exceeds not the gain. This, then, is what an assault means—a slaughter-pen, a charnel-house, and an army of weeping mothers and sisters at home.—It is inevitable. When an assault is successful, it is to be hoped that the public gain may warrant the loss of life requisite. When it is repulsed, tenfold is the mourning.

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