The Demotivational Colonel Hubbard?

James Hubbard (Dudley L. Vaill – The County Regiment)

After receiving orders on April 1, 1865, to assault the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg the following morning, Col. James Hubbard assembled the officers of his 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery regiment, then serving as infantry, to brief them on the pending charge. The thirty-one year old explained the unit’s assignment and concluded his brief talk with a statement that hardly seems to have inspired confidence among the subordinates:

“Gentlemen, we are going to have a hell of a fight at early daylight as General Grant has made up his mind to take Petersburg and Richmond tomorrow morning and I want you fellows to simply tell your first sergeant[s] to have the men fall in ready to march as I have suggested, at 1 o’clock a.m. Now you can go to your quarters and if any of you have anything to say to your folks, wives or sweethearts make your story short and get what sleep you can for hell will be tapped early in the morning… God only knows how many of us will ever come out of this damn fight. Good night, gentlemen, hoping our forces may be successful.”[1]

Colonel Hubbard had ample reason to worry about the coming morning’s work, spurred by deep harbored feelings from the regiment’s first major battle. The Connecticut soldiers had spent most of the war comfortably ensconced in the fortifications around Washington. Though originally designated the 19th Infantry they soon received reassignment to service the large artillery pieces protecting the national capital. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant finally ordered the regiment out to the front in the middle of May 1864, while the Army of the Potomac was locked in combat with the Army of Northern Virginia near Spotsylvania.

The regiment, at the time under command of Col. Elisha Strong Kellogg, joined Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps and participated in small skirmishing at Spotsylvania and North Anna. On the first day of June, Kellogg pushed his men on a forced march to the front lines at Cold Harbor, arriving late in the morning. Union cavalry had seized the Old Cold Harbor crossroads the previous day and repulsed attempts by Confederate infantry to reclaim the intersection. Now Wright wanted the VI Corps to press forward and drive the reeling southerners across the Chickahominy River before they could entrench or be reinforced. The delayed arrival of Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps as support forced Wright’s men to wait until 5 p.m. to prepare for their charge, a critical lapse that doomed the Nutmeggers.

Colonel Elisha Strong Kellogg (Litchfield Historical Society)

The regiment spent the afternoon digging rifle pits to support VI Corps artillery batteries who unlimbered to defend the intersection. Kellogg caught several soldiers gawking at the bodies of slain Rebels that remained where they fell when shot by Federal cavalry. “Don’t harm the dead,” the colonel scolded, having, unlike most of his command, seen large-scale combat, in fact near the exact ground during the Seven Days Battles in 1862. “You don’t know how soon you will be in the same fix.”[2]

At 5 p.m. the ‘Second Heavies’ arranged themselves as the first three lines of Emory Upton’s formation, with the recently promoted brigadier’s remaining four regiments in reserve, still recuperating from their high casualties during the earlier stages of the Overland Campaign. James Hubbard commanded the leading battalion as the regiment’s lieutenant colonel. Within an hour’s time his men charged into a well-prepared Confederate defense in their front.

The fire from Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Clingman’s North Carolinians devastated the Connecticut men, particularly Hubbard’s battalion in the lead. Companies A, B, K, and E lost 91 killed or mortally wounded and an additional 98 wounded. Overall, the regiment suffered 313 casualties, including Col. Kellogg who was killed at the head of the charge. Lieutenant Colonel Martin T. McMahon, on Wright’s VI Corps staff, later wrote:

“The 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery, a new regiment eighteen hundred strong, had joined us but a few days before the battle. Its uniform was bright and fresh; therefore its dead were easily distinguishable where they lay. They marked in a dotted line an obtuse angle, covering a wide front, with its apex toward the enemy, and there upon his face, still in death, with his head to the works, lay the colonel, the brave and genial Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg.”[3]

While Confederate fire stopped Upton’s advance, Col. William Snyder Truex’s brigade enjoyed an easier path to the right along a swampy, undefended ravine—thereafter known as Bloody Run—that fed into Powhite Creek near Gaines’ Mill. The success of the VI Corps’ 3rd Division that evening, June 1, provoked Ulysses S. Grant to call for the large-scale attacks that make the Cold Harbor battle infamous today.

Hubbard had seen enough, however, and turned down command of the Second Heavies when offered following Cold Harbor. “In common with all the officers and men, he was worn out,” claimed Adjutant Theodore Frelinghuysen Vaill. “The purely murderous charge of June 1st was our first, and thus far our only fighting experience, and Lieutenant Colonel Hubbard drew the hasty inference that all the fighting was likely to consist in a similar walking right into the jaws of hell.” At Upton’s request, Hubbard recommenced for Ranald S. Mackenzie, a West Point peer of Upton’s, to take charge of the regiment while Hubbard remained as second in command.[4]

Colonel Joseph Eldridge Hamblin (Library of Congress)

The Second Heavies continued to serve as infantry for the rest of the war, seeing additional hard combat around Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley. Upon their return to Petersburg in December 1864, Hubbard was temporarily thrust into command of the brigade, by necessity of wounds to Mackenzie and Col. Joseph Eldrige Hamblin at Cedar Creek. Both recovered, but the unpopular Mackenzie was plucked from the regiment to take over a cavalry division before the final offensive at Petersburg. Hamblin returned to command the brigade and the once-reluctant Hubbard found himself at the helm of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery in March.

His men helped mop up the outflanked and exhausted remnants of two Georgia regiments at the battle of Jones Farm on March 25, 1865, in which engagement the popular sergeant major, Eliada Goodwin Osborne, was killed. Eight days later they would be tasked with manning the right flank of the VI Corps’ wedge assault formation on the morning of April 2nd.

In the intervening days between Jones Farm and the Breakthrough, Hubbard sought to shake his men out of the boring routine of winter camp life and prepare them for the spring campaign. This rattled some of his subordinates. Second Lieutenant David Edwin Soule recalled:

“Some of the officers became incensed against Colonel Hubbard, accusing him of being almost as bad as Mackenzie and even so far that he put two or three under arrest in their quarters, but I have always thought that Hubbard was right for many of them had been home on furloughs and had had an easy time and he probably thought they wanted some discipline and drill to get them back to their old time efficiency and Colonel Hubbard knew very well that we would no doubt be called to fight and march in the very near future.”[5]

When he indeed received that call on April 1, Hubbard called his line officers together. “We all got inside of his tent about 10 o’clock [p.m.], and there sat the colonel just simply answering our salutes as we came in and looking very grave and as it seemed to me a rather sorrowful look on his countenance,” Soule later wrote. “Finally when we had all arrived the colonel said: ‘Gentlemen, I have sent for you to tell you that we have a serious duty to perform and that very soon.’”[6]

Second Lieutenant David Edwin Soule, postwar
(History of the Towns of New Milford and Bridgewater)

In addition to Hubbard’s dour statement quoted at the beginning of the article, the colonel also stipulated that the officers should be ready to muzzle any soldiers who might be wounded by sporadic Confederate picket gunfire before the assault began, so as to prevent the sentries from using the cries of the injured to detect the VI Corps’ precise location, strength, and—most important—intentions. The colonel perhaps felt as if his men were being led into a repeat of their first combat experience at Cold Harbor.

However, it should be noted that Soule’s description of Hubbard’s “hell of a fight” pre-battle speech is found in a reminiscence published in the July 12, 1912 New Milford Gazette. As Will Greene first pointed out in The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008), Capt. Michael Kelly also attended the meeting—he claimed it took place at 7 p.m.—and provided a more inspiring, optimistic portrayal of the colonel, claiming to notice an “excited but calm, determination in his eyes.” Kelly chronicled in his diary that Hubbard said:

“Gentlemen, I have orders from H. Qrs. 6 Corps, counter signed by Div. & Brigade Commanders that we are to move out tomorrow morning at 4 AM by the left flank in front of Fort Fisher, the same grounds we went over 25 March. Charge on and penetrate the rebel works. All the armies of Va., the Potomac & James, [are] to charge at the same moment on Richmond & Petersburg.”

Kelly continued to write, “The Col. was in great glee & said, ‘Gentlemen, I expect good records of you and your men.’ Oh, what a night, men jumping & dancing with joy to think they had a chance to fly, as some of them said, through those works.”[7]

Soule’s rendition has emerged as the more popular of the two and any trepidation Hubbard may have felt is certainly understandable, given his experience to date in the war and the perceived strength of the Confederate line. The truth is probably a mix of a two, as most letters and diary entries written before charge reflect optimism at the opportunity to finally break the Confederate lines but fear at the cost it would require.

Despite Hubbard’s supposed worry, the Second Heavies found that their position at the outside of the wedge spared them of heavy fire to their front. Hubbard’s men would have been closer to Church Road than the ravine of Arthur’s Swamp I so frequently mention when writing about the Breakthrough. Four brigades separated Hamblin’s brigade from the Vermonters in the center of the wedge. Thus, by the time the Connecticut troops reached the Confederate entrenchments that morning, other regiments to their left had already breached the line and forced the defenders to retreat or surrender.

Hamblin’s path likely took him toward the section of the Confederate line manned by Brig. Gen. Edward Lloyd Thomas’s Georgians. The rest of the 1st and 2nd Divisions meanwhile struck the line guarded by Brig. Gen. James Henry Lane’s North Carolinians, while the 3rd Division matched up against two North Carolina regiments detached from MacRae’s Brigade, serving for the moment under Lt. Col. Eric Erson.

An account from Private Joseph Sydney Kimbrough, a Confederate vedette from Thomas’s Brigade, suggested that lighter work befell Hamblin’s four regiments, including the Second Heavies:

“They had broken our lines below us, and the roll of picket firing sped up the line with fearful rapidity, and before I could realize my danger my own men were firing from their pits, and I had to coon it on my all-fours back to the line under a heavy picket fire. When I got there we soon discovered that the breastworks below us were in the hands of the enemy, and we had to beat a hasty retreat.”[8]

Captain Michael Kelly (Connecticut Historical Society)

Captain Michael Kelly meanwhile chronicle the Second Heavies’ assault in his diary.

“Day begins to break, all ears set to hear the signal guns. Rebs begin to mistrust (pickets) and begin to fire. Away goes the cannon, up jumps every officer & man, swords aloft & away we go over rebel abatis, intrenchments, breastworks, outer forts and inner. Took everything in a twinkling of an eye. Did not wait for the Pioneer boys with broad axes for us. We scaled, burst through any way to get at the main forts. We are there. Reb officers & men flee before us like the wind. We chase them in every direction. Some went to the right, some to the left & took and drove them from every fort, turn their hot cannons after their heels as we (2 Heavies) understood loading & firing heavy guns. Such racing, such chasing the world before never saw.”[9]

Adjutant Theodore Vaill later recalled:

“There was but little firing on our side,—but with bayonets fixed, the boys went in—not in a very mathematical right line, but strongly and surely,—on, on, until the first line was carried. Then, invigorated and greatly encouraged by success, they pressed on,—the opposing fire slackening every moment,—on, on, through the abbattis and ditch, up the steep bank, over the parapet, into the rebel camp that had but just been deserted. Then, and there, the long tried and ever faithful soldiers of the Republic saw daylight!—and such a shout as tore the concave of that morning sky, it were worth dying to hear.”[10]

While the remainder of the victorious corps swept the line to the southwest a portion of the 2nd Connecticut advanced on their own initiative to cut the South Side Railroad. The bulk of Hamblin’s four regiments remained in place within the Confederate works and repulsed a brief counterattack of 600-700 Confederates sent by Maj. Gen. Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox to regain his lost position. Eventually three divisions of the Army of the James arrived to relieve the brigade.

Hamblin then received orders to march his brigade to the east to support Maj. Gen. John Grubb Parke’s IX Corps who were bitterly engaged with the Confederate Second Corps around Fort Mahone, but arrived too late in the day to provide significant assistance. Spared hard combat on both fronts, the Second Heavies received assignment for picket duty overnight.

Early the next morning, April 3, Hubbard’s men joined many of their Federal comrades around Petersburg in creeping toward the Confederate positions evacuated overnight. At least one member of the regiment claimed to be the first Federal soldier into the city that day.[11]

Hubbard would temporarily serve as provost marshal in the city before rejoining Hamblin’s brigade in time to fight at Sailor’s Creek on April 6th. Having perhaps wondered aloud “how many of us will ever come out of this damn fight,” Hubbard’s regiment suffered no more than twenty casualties during the final campaign before the surrender at Appomattox—nine wounded and one missing at the Breakthrough and nine wounded, three mortally of that number, at Sailor’s Creek. Brevet Major General Frank Wheaton, commanding the division, afterward recommended that Hubbard be brevetted brigadier general “for conspicuous gallantry and distinguished services” in both battles.[12]



[1] David E. Soule, “Recollections of the Civil War, LVII,” New Milford Gazette, July 12, 1912.

[2] David E. Soule reminiscence published in Samuel Orcutt, ed. History of the Towns of New Milford and Bridgewater, Connecticut, 1703-1882 (Hartford, CT, 1882), 532.

[3] Martin T. McMahon, “Cold Harbor” in Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4 (New York: The Century Co., 1888), 219.

[4] Theodore F. Vaill, History of the Second Volunteer Heavy Artillery (Winsted, CT: Winsted Printing Company, 1868), 67-68.

[5] David E. Soule, “Recollections of the Civil War, LVI,” New Milford Gazette, July 5, 1912.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Kelly, Diary, April 1, 1865. Connecticut Historical Society.

[8] Joseph S. Kimbrough, “A Sharpshooter’s Last Shot,” The Sunny South, September 7, 1901.

[9] Michael Kelly, Diary, April 2, 1865. Connecticut Historical Society.

[10] Vaill, History of the Second Volunteer Heavy Artillery, 159.

[11] George C. Stewart, “Petersburg. A Claim for the First Entry Filed from the Nutmeg State,” National Tribune, December 23, 1886.

[12] Frank Wheaton to Charles H. Whittelsey, April 18, 1865. OR 46, pt. 1, 920.

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