Mapping the Attack on Fort Mahone, April 2, 1865

The VI Corps assault on the morning of April 2, 1865 unraveled the Confederate earthworks in Dinwiddie County and forced Robert E. Lee to issue orders to evacuate the lines around Petersburg and Richmond. Their dawn attack that I frequently write about was not alone. It joined a series of other engagements on that decisive day around Petersburg that produced around 9,000 total casualties. Though between a third and a half of that number count Confederates taken prisoner, the 3,936 Federal casualties ranks as one of the twenty bloodiest battles of the war for northern armies.

Major General John Grubb Parke’s IX Corps suffered nearly half of that number in a daring attack into the teeth of the enemy’s earthworks at Fort Mahone, southeast of Petersburg. Their full day of grinding combat gained the main line of entrenchments but could not crack through the tangled web of secondary Confederate lines to gain entry into the city. Their valiant combat nevertheless locked Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon’s Confederate Second Corps into a series of attacks and counterattacks throughout April 2nd, preventing Lee from calling upon Gordon for reserves to restore the crumbling Dinwiddie defenses. Immediately after Petersburg fell the next morning, photographers flocked to Parke’s section of the battlefield and produced a number of famous photographs that seem to populate every project featuring the trenches at Petersburg. This is now an attempt to map out Parke’s combat that day.

I should immediately note that I am not the first to cartographically document this overlooked engagement. The noted National Park Service historian Ed Bearss produced a series of five maps that have been digitized in high resolution on Brett Schulte’s incredibly useful research website, The Siege of Petersburg Online. I utilized much of Bearss’s previously conducted research for these maps, tweaking a few troop arrangements. Overall, I cannot admit that these are much more than just a modern rendition providing more clarity for Bearss’s previous work. Julia Steele, David Lowe, and Philip Shiman have also done fantastic work determining the photo shoot locations for many of the iconic images of the Confederate earthworks along the Jerusalem Plank Road for their Petersburg Project.

Like Bearss, I used the Union engineer maps compiled during and after the war by Nathaniel Michler for my basemap. A digitization of one of the best ones for Petersburg’s eastern front can be consulted through the Library of Congress. Michler’s maps are exceptional with only minimal mistakes to be found. The biggest issue I have found with these maps is that they are not perfectly to scale, proving a challenge when trying to overlay them with modern maps. Usually I try to utilize the United States Geological Survey’s historical topographic maps to provide an elevation layer but the first reliable USGS maps for this region are from the 1940s. By this time the conversion of the Jerusalem Plank Road into U.S. Route 301 and the development of a Norfolk & Western Railway line obliterated much of the historic landscape. Since then the city has expanded all the way through the battlefield. Tragically nothing of Fort Mahone or Fort Sedgwick survived development.

I include an aerial image with initial troop movements and an estimation of the earthworks at the end of the article. Exact locations of each battery are certainly open to scrutiny. Fort Mahone was probably located a tad further west and Fort Sedgwick a smidgen more east. Artillery locations are general representation. Further study could perhaps yield more precision.

Most important! Be sure to click on each map for a larger version. Also, please feel free to download and print a PDF file containing all seven phases of the battle here – Battle of Fort Mahone, April 2, 1865.

In lieu of too much contextual background for the final campaign at Petersburg that would once more obscure the battle around Fort Mahone, I’ll simply provide the map below that shows the Union combat and maneuver on April 2nd. Throughout the final campaign, starting March 29th, as the Union Cavalry, II, and V Corps maneuvered through Dinwiddie County to cut Petersburg’s last two supply lines, the VI and IX Corps had standing orders to attack the Confederate entrenchments in their front should they notice any weakening. Indeed, at 4 p.m. on April 1st, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade instructed Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, commanding the VI, to prepare to attack the next morning. These orders were written just as heavy combat around Five Forks was beginning. When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant learned of Union victory at that critical intersection, he amended Meade’s orders for an immediate attack all along the lines.

Union subordinates reported the impracticality of an assault that evening so the orders were delayed for early morning, April 2nd. Even then, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan was unusually timid in his advance north from Five Forks, Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys did not attack with the II Corps south of Hatcher’s Run until mid-morning, and Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord reported that his three Army of the James divisions (nominally under control of Maj. Gen. John Gibbon) north of Hatcher’s Run found the terrain impracticable for an assault. Wright and the VI Corps decisively smashed through the Confederate lines in their front between 4:40 and 5:15 a.m., but Parke had the first jump, launching feints beginning at 4 a.m. against the Confederate lines from the Crater north to the Appomattox River.

Meanwhile, Parke had formed five brigades from all three of his divisions along the Jerusalem Plank Road, aiming the main thrust of the corps at Batteries 25-30 of the Dimmock Line–Petersburg’s main ring of entrenchments. The next to last in the set, #29 and also known as Fort Mahone, stood several yards in front of the main line while Battery 26 provided a reserve position along the plank road. Secondary lines, additional artillery emplacements, covered ways, and abatis further canvassed the space in front of and behind the Dimmock Line. Confederate pickets meanwhile manned a series of rifle pits several hundred yards further toward the Union lines.

Major General Bryan Grimes’s Confederate division opposed Parke. The 53rd North Carolina garrisoned Fort Mahone to Battery 30 with the rest of Col. David G. Cowand’s brigade stretching further to the west. Colonel Edwin L. Hobson’s Alabamians manned the line left of Fort Mahone past the plank road. There they connected with Col. Edwin A. Nash’s Georgians who faced south and east. Grimes’s final brigade, Brig. Gen. William R. Cox’s North Carolinians meanwhile spread themselves from Cowand’s right west to Battery 45, where the Dimmock Line turned north toward the Appomattox River. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps meanwhile guarded the extension of the Confederate lines angling off from Battery 45 along the Boydton Plank Road.

Few places along the opposing lines at Petersburg found the adversaries closer to one another than the ground designated for the IX Corps to charge. The soldiers dreaded an assignment in between Fort Mahone (Fort Damnation) and Union Fort Sedgwick (Fort Hell). Parke, however, chose this corridor for his attack, believing the close proximity would allow his men to quickly overwhelm the Confederate Second Corps before they could realize battle had begun, similar to how Gordon had surprised the Federals at Fort Stedman eight days earlier. This time Parke intended to properly exploit any breakthrough.

He placed Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter’s 2nd Division west of the plank road. Brigadier General Simon G. Griffin arranged six of his 1st Brigade’s regiments in a column in front of Fort Sedgwick while four of Col. John I. Curtin’s 2nd Brigade regiments supported them on the left. Brigadier General John F. Hartranft formed to the right of Potter. Colonel Joseph A. Mathews placed his three regiments east of the road, borrowing the 208th Pennsylvania as support. Lieutenant Colonel William H.H. McCall’s other two regiments provided a reserve force along the Union earthworks. Colonel Samuel Harriman formed three regiments in column to the right of Mathews, with an additional two alongside McCall.

Griffin instructed three companies of skirmishers to seize the Confederate rifle pits once the signal gun fired. Meanwhile pioneers would clear the obstructions in front of the earthworks allowing Griffin to charge Battery 28 while Mathews attacked Battery 27. Once those were seized Curtin would advance on Fort Mahone to the left and Harriman would attack Battery 25 on the right.

The signal gun’s discharge at 4:30 spurred the IX Corps forward. Griffin and Mathews quickly overran the Confederate rifle pits and squeezed through the gaps cut in the abatis by the pioneers. After a brief struggle up the parapet the two brigades piled into the entrenchments on either side of the Jerusalem Plank Road, driving back the Alabamians until they rallied at Battery 26. Harriman’s brigade meanwhile forced their way into Battery 25 where, with assistance from gunners of the 1st Connecticut Heavy artillery, they turned the Confederate cannon against their former garrison. Curtin’s brigade also pressed forward at this time, capturing Fort Mahone and slowly picking their way toward the main Confederate line.

While Grimes frantically sought to establish a new position to contain Parke’s advance, the IX Corps reserve moved forward to secure what their comrades had gained. Heavy casualties in the initial attacks, including the death of Col. George W. Gowan, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania, and a serious wound to Potter, further grounded any further forward movement west of the plank road. Command of the 2nd Division devolved onto Griffin while Col. Walter Harriman, future New Hampshire governor, took charge of the 2nd Brigade. Griffin refused Curtin’s brigade, the Federal left flank aligning themselves along the spur of Confederate earthworks running south to Fort Mahone.

Cowand rallied his brigade and prevented Union expansion of their breakthrough into Battery 30. Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher H. Archer meanwhile hustled his two battalions of Virginia Reserves into position to assist the North Carolinians. Grimes also directed artillery to plunge their fire into the Confederates’ lost entrenchments. He tried several times to spur his men forward to regain the Dimmock Line but failed to budge the Union forces, who now clung to their captured works with grim determination. Parke wired for assistance but Grimes ferociously struck before any could arrive.

A Confederate counterattack at 1 P.M. failed to dislodge Parke’s men but he returned two hours later just before the IX Corps received their reinforcements. Colonel Charles H.T. Collis’s Independent Brigade hurried south from their position at Meade’s Station, on the U.S. Military Railroad, to Fort Sedgwick. Wright meanwhile sent Col. Joseph Eldridge Hamblin’s VI Corps brigade east. Grimes’s 3 P.M. assault hit while Collis and Hamblin moved forward on the plank road. Small bands of North Carolinians flanked the left of Curtin’s line in Fort Mahone while Archer, Hobson, and Nash attacked south. Grimes may have also received assistance in the form of Col. Titus V. Williams’s consolidated Virginia brigade. Griffin stubbornly withdrew his division, contesting every traverse, parapet, and ditch. Hartranft’s division and Harriman’s brigade, with no force threatening their flank, managed to stick to their position, limiting Grimes’s gains.

Collis’s brigade counterattacked around 3:30, forcing the Confederates out of Batteries 28 and 29 once more. Hamblin also moved forward to strengthen the Union position at Battery 27. Colonel Robert C. Cox meanwhile took command of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, Mathews having been sent to the rear on account of illness. Despite his subordinates’ request to follow up their success with an attack on Gordon’s secondary lines, Parke demurred, believing that even heavier casualties could not justify future assaults. By this time, the Confederates in Dinwiddie had yielded their positions at Sutherland Station, Fort Gregg, and Edge Hill. Lee scraped together a new line sealing Petersburg’s western front from Battery 45 to 55 but the Confederate commander was already focusing on how to evacuate his men from Petersburg and Richmond.

Darkness fell with the IX Corps in possession of all of the entrenchments they had captured throughout the day’s fight. Grimes’s energy and the willingness of his Confederate infantrymen to continuously throw themselves into the breach staved off immediate capture of Petersburg on the 2nd. After the sun set they slowly began withdrawing into the city, where they crossed the Appomattox River on the Campbell, Pocahontas, and railroad bridges, beginning the week-long retreat to Appomattox Court House. Cautious Federals crept up to the vacant inner lines before sunrise on April 3rd. Once discovering they had been evacuated, the northern soldiers raced with their comrades east and west of Petersburg to be the first to enter a city that had defiantly stood within artillery range since June 1864.

Parke reported 18 officers and 235 enlisted men killed, 85 officers and 1,220 men wounded, and 5 officers and 156 men missing on April 2nd, totaling 1,719 casualties. Potter’s division suffered the most and though the wounded brigadier survived his severe wound it is believed it contributed to his early death in 1887 at the age of 57. The IX Corps captured at least 1,000 Confederates during the day. Precise numbers of killed and wounded would be impossible to determine for Gordon’s corps.

Though their attack did not directly force Lee’s hand in evacuating Petersburg, the IX Corps had every reason to be proud of their accomplishments on that decisive day. They attacked Confederate earthworks designed to allow the defense in depth utilized by Grimes to limit the breakthrough. On the other side of the city, only one line of earthworks stretched to the southwest where Wright had attacked more successfully. While Parke has also been criticized for targeting one of the strongest portions of the Confederate line for his main assault, this is no worse than Maj. Gen. John Gibbon’s commitment to attack, rather than flank or simply ignore, Fort Gregg. This decision cost the Army of the James 714 casualties. The IX Corps’ attack at least had the benefit of darkness. Parke certainly acted with more energy and initiative that day than many of his colleagues, particularly the sluggish Sheridan who hardly followed up his victory from the previous day.

Perhaps the IX Corps reputation–a stigma of their association with the beleaguered Ambrose Burnside and their time spent away from the Army of the Potomac–contributed to the overlooking of their actions on April 2nd. While Parke’s veterans themselves praised their gallant deeds, the battle has been largely ignored in both the historical and modern day. Confederate veterans meanwhile wrote little about the final attacks against Petersburg. When they did write, they latched onto Fort Gregg to demonstrate southern gallantry against overwhelming numbers.

Two monuments crown the battlefield, though they probably should switch locations. In 1907 a statue of the slain Col. Gowan was erected along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Today it stands near the intersection of Crater Road (U.S. 301) and Sycamore Road (Alt. U.S. 301). Gowan was killed while Curtin’s brigade angled for Fort Mahone. Just south of the fort’s former location, a monument to Hartranft’s Pennsylvania division was dedicated in 1909. A Virginia Civil War Trails wayside exhibit notes that Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the battlefield the day after the combat.

Nothing exists of Fort Mahone, the other Confederate batteries in line, nor Fort Sedgwick. If you’re properly looking at the right angle from the Hartranft monument you can catch a glimpse of the roof of the building standing on Sedgwick’s site. An attempt to overlay this lost battlefield onto a modern aerial photograph concludes this mapping activity. Hopefully it helps prevent the actions of those who fought here from continuing to be lost as well.

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7 Responses to Mapping the Attack on Fort Mahone, April 2, 1865

  1. David Corbett says:

    Enjoyable article.

  2. David Lady says:

    I’m grateful for your attention to the IX Corps and John Parke. It seems to me that both unit and commander have been ignored by CW historians. I am interested in the record of both; almost always in supporting roles, the corps between western and eastern theaters and Parke shuttled between roles as Commanding General or Chief of Staff of the IX Corps. Not glamorous and often unfortunate, they deserve to be remembered for more than the Burnside bridge and the Crater.

  3. Really cool cartography–and great use of the maps to illustrate the story!

  4. Ryan Quint says:

    Knocked it out of the park, Ed. Nicely done.

  5. John Foskett says:

    Excellent work.

  6. Very good—I especially love the troop overlays on modern road networks.

  7. Pingback: ECW Week in Review Oct. 9-15 | Emerging Civil War

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