The Superhuman Henry Recor at the Petersburg Breakthrough

I have yet to find a Civil War story as compelling and consequential as that of Captain Charles G. Gould, the first Sixth Corps soldier to breach the Confederate lines on the morning of April 2, 1865. Union soldiers from the Second, Ninth, and Twenty-fourth Corps grappled with Confederates all throughout that decisive day, both army commanders came under enemy fire, a lieutenant general was shot dead, and the day ended with Richmond and Petersburg evacuated and in flame. Nevertheless, when discussing the Breakthrough I find that I dwell in most detail on the Charlie Gould story.

Every hero needs a sidekick and the captain’s comrades played a pivotal part that I sometimes overlook when shining a light on Gould. Were it not for Corporal Henry Recor, Gould would not have even survived the battle. The valiant manner in which Recor also fought during the Breakthrough inspired his commanding officers to effuse praise with rare language for the usual dryly written after action reports.

Henry H. Recor was born about 1843-1844 in Plattsburgh, New York to Canadian immigrants Max and Addie Jellie Recor. He grew up in West Chazy, New York and lived there at the outbreak of the Civil War. During the second year of the war Henry enlisted in Williamstown, Vermont as a private in Company D, 12th Vermont Infantry. He mustered into service on October 4, 1862. The company descriptive book listed him as a nineteen year old farmer standing 5’6” with a dark complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair.

The 12th Vermont spent the majority of its nine months’ service in northern Virginia. On June 25, 1863, they were attached to the First Corps, but Recor’s service records show that he was admitted as a patient into Washington’s Harewood General Hospital on that day. He presumably missed the Gettysburg campaign. The 12th Vermont’s terms of enlistment were about to expire so the regiment marched at the rear of the column into Pennsylvania and guarded the wagon train. After the battle they escorted Confederate prisoners to Baltimore and then travelled home to Vermont. Private Recor rejoined the regiment to muster out of service on July 14.

The following year he decided to reenlist as a subsitute. Jude Town of Barre, Vermont paid him $300 to serve in his place and Recor additionally received one quarter of the one hundred dollar bounty up front. On June 4, 1864, he mustered into Company A of the 5th Vermont Infantry. The veteran unit belonged to the Second Brigade, Second Division, of the Sixth Corps and was banded with five other Vermont regiments under Brigadier General Lewis A. Grant’s command.[1]

Recor needed to find the Vermont Brigade before he could join them. During the middle of June 1864 the Army of the Potomac had focused their attention on Petersburg, Virginia. The Vermonters fought hard along the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad on June 23 and afterward took position in the trenches near the Jerusalem Plank Road. Recor meanwhile travelled to New Haven, Connecticut to rendezvous with other reenlistees, recruits, and draftees. They sailed south on July 10 and arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia on July 14. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had meanwhile rushed the Sixth Corps back to Washington to defend the national capital against Confederate invasion.

The ships’ paths crossed without transferring Recor to his unit and the private found himself shuffled through various recruit camps in Washington and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania before finally arriving to his company on September 28. He participated in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign for the next two months. In December the corps returned to the Petersburg fortifications.

On January 2, 1865, Recor received a promotion to corporal and thereafter served in the color guard. Lieutenant Colonel Ronald A. Kennedy took charge of the regiment in February and afterwards noted Recor’s courage and professionalism. “As a soldier he is not excelled… his record gives evidence of his being courteous in his demeanor, and brave upon the field of battle,” the commander wrote. “His conduct has been exemplary, as regards military discipline, politeness to his superior officers, cleanliness of person, arms and equipments, and gentlemanly bearing toward his fellow soldiers.”[2]

The 5th Vermont’s color guard played a prominent role in the decisive assault on April 2, 1865. During the final offensive at Petersburg (March 29-April 3, 1865), the Sixth Corps had standing orders to attack the fortifications southwest of Petersburg as soon as they discovered the Confederates had diminished their garrison. Mobile Union columns operated through Dinwiddie County and Ulysses S. Grant expected the Confederates to shift south to block their path to the supply lines.

Major General Horatio G. Wright commanded the Sixth Corps and instructed his subordinates to identify weak points along the imposing Confederates earthworks they were to storm. Heavy tree cover had shielded the Confederate lines from observation when they were constructed the previous fall. Both armies chopped away at this screen for fuel and building materials throughout the winter. The corps had also overran the Confederate picket line on March 25, 1865 during the battle of Jones Farm. Capturing these rifle pits allowed the Union soldiers to complete their clear-cutting of the forest in no-man’s land. The advanced position additionally provided the Union officers a closer observation point to the Confederate lines.

The Vermont Brigade’s Lewis Grant identified a marshy ravine formed by the headwaters of Arthur’s Swamp that passed through the Confederate defenses. The creek broadened as it flowed into the Union lines and Grant believed he could form his brigade in the now-treeless valley and use the terrain as a physical guide for a nighttime attack. Wright approved Grant’s tactics and drafted specific instructions for the entire corps to attack with the Vermonters in the lead. Opportunity to execute this plan arrived at 4 p.m. on April 1, 1865, with orders from Major General George G. Meade for the Sixth Corps to attack the following morning. Ulysses S. Grant afterward amended these orders for the entire Union army to press forward.

Throughout the night the Sixth Corps formed behind their picket line. Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy’s 5th Vermont formed the tip of the 14,000 man wedge. Lewis Grant stacked his other five regiments behind Kennedy and Wright formed the rest of the corps en echelon on both flanks. The men spent an unnerving night within earshot and gunshot of the Confederate sentries. A lone signal gun fired at 4:40 a.m., April 2, and the men jolted forward. The attackers easily overwhelmed the pickets in their rifle pits but enough sentries squeezed off a shot to alert the Confederates encamped behind the main earthworks four to five hundred yards away. Brigadier General James H. Lane’s four North Carolina regiments rushed to the wall and poured volleys into the packed Union ranks.

The attacking column wavered under enemy fire after passing the rifle pits. Multiple lines of abatis blocked their path to the fortifications. The Arthur’s Swamp valley meanwhile meandered about as it approached the Confederate lines. Additional headwaters branches flowed into the main channel, complicating the use of the swamp as a physical guide. Despite Wright’s intentions for the attack to move forward with speed, small bands of soldiers paused in these defilades of the rolling terrain to prepare for the final push into the teeth of the Confederate defenses.

Captain Charles G. Gould commanded Company H in the 5th Vermont. As Gould led his men through the ravine he heard someone shout “Bear to the left!” Perhaps the command was intended to keep the men in the swamp as it made the final bend toward the Confederate line. An officer in Colonel Thomas W. Hyde’s brigade to the right of the Vermonters may also have been yelling at his men to keep them closed in on the center of the Union wedge. Confederate engineers wisely placed a two-gun artillery redan at a salient position to enfilade where the swamp passed through the line. The connecting infantry works additionally refused backward to a junction at the swamp. Heavy fire blanketed the final approach into Confederate lines. Gould may have sought a covered approach into the defenses by using one of the headwaters ravines just south of Lewis Grant’s target.

Whatever the reason, Gould directed Company H out of the main channel and into the defilade. First Lieutenant Robert Pratt, First Sergeants James Grace and Edward Brownlee, the regimental color guard (including Corporal Recor), and about fifty men from several companies followed the captain. Gould briefly paused to assess the situation. Separated from the main column, he did not want to linger in no-man’s land. He directed the men to attack straight ahead rather than return to the main channel. The small band dashed for the Confederate defenses and reached the trench below the parapet before Grant’s main column struck the opening one hundred yards to the north. Gould found a gap in the abatis and bounded into the earthworks before any of his companions arrived. Alone, he fought in vicious hand-to-hand combat with members of Major Jackson L. Bost’s 37th North Carolina Infantry.

The color guard followed close behind the captain. Sergeant Jackson Sargent bore the state flag to the front while Corporal Nelson Carle trailed a few steps behind with the national banner. Recor burst ahead of the color bearers and scaled the defenses just as the garrison overpowered Captain Gould. Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy noted that Recor was “among the first to enter the fort.” Inside the defenses he “became hotly engaged hand-to-hand, and badly in numbers against him.” Bost’s Confederates swarmed toward the corporal and “demanded a surrender he would not listen to.” Recor instead unleashed a “desperate attack” on those demanding his surrender. Gould had also fought back at first but now attempted to escape by climbing out of the fortifications. A North Carolinian yanked him back by his coat while another stabbed him in the back with a bayonet. The captain crumpled back to the ground and lay “helplessly upon the ground” while Confederates beat him with clubbed muskets.[3]

Recor raced over to the dazed captain, seized him by his collar, and pulled him up to the parapet. Kennedy wrote that “by almost superhuman effort,” Recor dragged Gould’s battered body out of the entrenchment. Lewis Grant borrowed the phrase when recognizing Recor, writing that “by almost superhuman efforts he seized the Captain by the collar of his coat and placed him in a protected position outside of the works.” Several men from Company H cradled the unconscious captain to safety in the ditch under cover from the Confederate fire.[4]

Sargent and Carle had meanwhile planted their flags upon the parapet as the rest of Gould’s band swarmed into the fortification. Hand-to-hand combat continued along the wall for a few minutes. The main storming party meanwhile broke through at the swamp and turned the loaded guns in the two-gun redan against the Confederates before they could rally. The five Union brigades to the right of the Vermonters and additional two to their left achieved similar success after brief, bloody combat along the earthworks. Wright reported at 5:15 a.m. that his corps had carried the Confederate position. The decisiveness of the Breakthrough at Petersburg forced the evacuation of Richmond that night.

Photograph of Captain Charles Gilbert Gould taken after the Breakthrough, the scar from his bayonet wound visible under his lip. (Courtesy of the University of Vermont)

Captain Gould miraculously survived his wounds. Though delirious when he regained consciousness, he staggered the one mile back to Union lines and brought the first confirmation that the Vermonters had breached the walls. Two decades later he wrote what he remembered after receiving his last bayonet wound: “I have do distinction of what followed, until I found myself at the parapet, trying to climb out of the work, but unable to do so. At this time Private [Corporal] Henry H. Recor, Company A, Fifth Vermont, appeared upon the parapet at that point. The brave fellow recognized the situation, and notwithstanding the danger incurred in doing so, pulled me upon the parapet.”[5]

Recor’s part in the engagement ended shortly afterward. Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy stated that Recor left Gould in the ditch and “immediately returned to the fray.” Soon thereafter he suffered a shell wound that forced him out of action. Gould, however, wrote that Recor received a gunshot wound while in the act of saving him. It is therefore unclear whether Recor charged back into the fortification after he pulled out Gould, but his actions clearly made a distinct impression upon the members of the brigade. Lewis Grant was wounded in the head before the Sixth Corps began their charge. Though not present at the actual point of breakthrough, he afterward heard enough about Recor’s heroics to declare that the corporal “contributed all in the power of one man towards securing the possession of the works and driving the enemy from the field.”[6]

Recor’s name appears throughout the after action reports. Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy briefly mentioned Recor on April 4, 1865. He described Gould’s hand-to-hand combat inside the Confederate fortifications and noted that the captain “was released from his dangerous position by a few men of his company and Corporal Recor of Company A.” Five days later, Kennedy submitted a two page description of Recor’s activity during the Breakthrough to the Vermont Brigade’s assistant adjutant general, Captain Merritt Barber, writing, “It is with pleasure that I submit this statement of the highly commendable and manly conduct of Corporal Recor.”[7]

Lewis Grant recommended that fourteen enlisted men receive medals for their actions on April 2, 1865. He identified Recor “for conspicuous gallantry in being one of the first to enter the enemy’s works and in rescuing Captain Gould, who had been bayoneted, and who was being beaten with the muskets of the enemy.” Brigadier General George W. Getty, commanding the division, did not include Recor among the twelve enlisted men he recommended for medals, but did list the corporal among those “deserving of especial honorable mention for gallant and meritorious conduct.”[8]

Only three enlisted men from the Vermont Brigade received a Medal of Honor for the Breakthrough: Sergeant Sargent, the color bearer; Sergeant Lester G. Hack, Company F, 5th Vermont; and Corporal Charles W. Dolloff, Company K, 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery. After breaching the Confederate lines at Arthur’s Swamp, the Sixth Corps swept four miles south to Hatcher’s Run. During this running fight down the Confederate line, Hack knocked down the color bearer of the 23rd Tennessee Infantry and seized his flag, and Dolloff captured the flag of the 42nd Mississippi Infantry. Gould and Adjutant Gardner Hawkins also earned medals for the brigade.

Recor’s ankle wound caused him to stay in a hospital at City Point while the army chased the Confederates to Appomattox. Surgeons diagnosed it as a “shell wound left lower extremity, involving outer aspect, middle 3d.” According to Vermont historian Paul Zeller’s research, the shell struck Recor about six inches below his left knee, took out some muscle, injured the bone, and cut a tendon. Recor was sent to Washington, D.C., arriving April 29 at Mount Pleasant General Hospital. After a month of recuperation he was sent on to Montpelier, Vermont, arriving at Sloan General Hospital on May 30.[9]

Recor applied for a disability pension the following month. He received a written statement from the recently brevetted Major Gould to support his claim. Gould testified that the corporal “performed a noble act of bravery, periling his own life to save mine.” Recor’s pension was approved for $6 per month for his ankle wound, as well as rheumatism and heart trouble.[10]

Company A mustered out of service in Washington on June 29, 1865, but the injured Recor officially mustered out of the army on July 11. While doing so he received a pleasant surprise. A patriotic citizen had sent Ulysses S. Grant $460 to give to the first soldier to raise the Stars and Stripes over Richmond. The decisiveness of the Breakthrough at Petersburg compelled the Confederates to immediately evacuate their capital, and the city fell without a fight along its defenses or in its streets. Grant therefore wanted to reward those who fought around Petersburg and requested that his subordinates submit recommendations.

Lewis Grant forwarded Recor’s name for consideration, stating that he was the first enlisted man to enter the Confederate fortifications, “considerably in advance” of the rest of the men. The brigade commander stated: “It is believed that no more conspicuous gallantry could have been displayed by one man than was displayed by Corpl. Recor on this occasion.” Ulysses S. Grant ultimately selected three soldiers from different units to receive the official reward: Corporal Jacob R. Tucker, 4th Maryland Infantry, 5th Corps; Sergeant David W. Young, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry, 6th Corps; and Sergeant Thomas McGraw, 23rd Illinois Infantry, 24th Corps. Anonymous donors provided additional sums and Lewis Grant’s testimony highlighted Recor as worthy of the honor.[11]

Recor received $150 from “Uncle Sam” when he mustered out. The Vermont Watchman agreed that he earned this prize for fighting alongside Gould: “Both were set upon by a large number of rebels who suceeded in bayoneting the Captain through the mouth and cheek and otherwise severely wounding him until he fell, and only by the most daring and heroic exertions of young Recor was he seized and borne beyond the reach of the bloodthirsty enemy and his life saved.” Recor had meanwhile married Almira H. Vasser on June 16, 1865. The newspaper commended the “good sense on the part of the fair maid who has recently joined hands with him for life.”[12]

A few biographical details round out his story. Like his father, Henry worked as a stone mason after the war. He briefly settled in Williamstown but moved to Barre within a decade. The Recors lived on 12 Pearl Street, where Henry continued his trade. He also served as a police officer and his well-earned pension was increased to $10 per month in 1892. Henry and Almira had four children: Charles, born March 15, 1866; Alice M., born August 2, 1871; Bessie O., born June 19, 1879; and Blanch B., born March 20, 1882. Henry and Almira moved to Manchester, New Hampshire in 1903 and lived on 285 Chestnut Street. Henry died on March 24, 1903 of a intercranial hemorrhage. He was buried two days later in Barre.

Union victory at Petersburg is typically seen with inevitable fatalism. The armies of the Potomac and James were indeed in advantageous positions that spring to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate strategy had failed to destroy Union forces or demoralize the population before the north’s inherent advantages in conventional warfare could produce battlefield victories. Confederate leadership failed to accept this reality and attempts for peaceful resolution fell apart prior to the bloody 1865 campaign. With further combat as the only inevitability on April 2, someone needed to carry the plan through to the end. Corporal Recor’s superhuman bravery illustrated the hard fighting necessary to finally defeat the rebellion.

 

[1] Paul G. Zeller, Williamstown, Vermont in the Civil War (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010), 48-51.

[2] Ronald A. Kennedy to Merritt Barber, April 9, 1865 and May 17, 1865, Henry H. Recor Service Records, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, DC.

[3] Kennedy to Barber, April 9, 1865. Lewis Grant to Charles Mundee, May 17, 1865, Henry H. Recor Service Records, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, DC.

[4] Kennedy to Barber, April 9, 1865. Grant to Mundee, May 17, 1865.

[5] Charles G. Gould to George G. Benedict, undated, G.G. Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War: A History of the Part Taken by the Vermont Soldiers and Sailors in the War for the Union, 1861-5 Volume 1 (Burlington, VT: The Free Press Association, 1886), 595.

[6] Kennedy to Barber, April 9, 1865. Grant to Mundee, May 17, 1865.

[7] Ronald A. Kennedy to Merritt Barber, April 4, 1865, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Volume 46, Part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894), 975. Kennedy to Barber, April 9, 1865.

[8] Lewis Grant to Charles Mundee, April 16, 1865, OR vol. 46, pt. 1, 973. George W. Getty to Charles H. Whittelsey, April 20, 1865, OR vol. 46, pt. 1, 961.

[9] Zeller, Williamstown, Vermont in the Civil War, 48-51.

[10] Zeller, Williamstown, Vermont in the Civil War, 48-51.

[11] Grant to Mundee, May 17, 1865.

[12] Vermont Watchman, July 14, 1865.

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2 Responses to The Superhuman Henry Recor at the Petersburg Breakthrough

  1. David Corbett says:

    Thrilling tale !

  2. Chris Mackowski says:

    Great map!

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