A Petersburg Picket’s Letter

Primary source research is a grinding ordeal but a necessary one for a group of historians whose mantra is to provide fresh perspectives on America’s defining event. It is a rewarding task, too, when you land on a juicy quote or an entire letter that supports your hypothesis. When writing Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, I had used a quote I found in Alan A. Siegel’s Beneath the Starry Flag: New Jersey’s Civil War Experience. A member of the 10th New Jersey joked about the frequency of Confederate desertions and I thought his humorous anecdote warranted a place in my chapter discussing the camp experience and morale of the opposing forces.

I attribute a number of different reasons as to why the Sixth Corps’ assault was successful on the morning of April 2, 1865–among them, the learned lessons of successful assaults previously made by the organization, the campaign strategy of Ulysses S. Grant that led to a lopsided battlefield around the Boisseau farms that morning, and the specific tactics suggested by brigade commander Lewis A. Grant. A high level of confidence, too, among the Sixth Corps soldiers turned a successful lodgment in the enemy entrenchments that many units could have done, into the most consequential attack of the war. This last opinion can only be supported by pre-Breakthrough writings, so I was happy to recently find the full letter quoted from Siegel’s book.

“Perhaps a few lines from the 1st New Jersey Brigade will be acceptable,” a soldier from the 10th New Jersey Infantry wrote on February 27, 1865 from his camp southeast of Petersburg. The Newark Daily Advertiser had several soldier correspondents within the Army of the Potomac. This appeared to be the first missive from this particular writer. “It has rained almost incessantly for the last three days, making it unfavorable for army operations, but just the right kind of weather for deserters to come in. They average from fifty to two and three hundred in twenty-four hours, along our Corps picket front. Yesterday, on our left, in front of the 3d Division, where the picket lines are only a short distance apart, this incident occurred.”

Both armies cut wood between the lines—“Yank” on one side of the tree, “Johnny Reb” on the other—the utmost good feeling prevailing on both sides. When the tree was cut down and hewn into suitable lengths for carting, two six-mule teams came out with five men in each from the rebel lines, loaded up the wood, and started for our lines with it—men, wood, teams and all. When they came to our pickets, they were halted by the vidette. The driver cried out, “You need not halt us, for we are going right to Headquarters. So many of we uns coming in lately, we thought they would want some wood, so we brought along a couple of loads.” And go to Headquarters they did, and unloaded their wood, and received full Government price for their teams.

Deserters from their lines all concur in the statement of the speedy evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, that their cause is fast falling, and that nearly the whole army is disgusted with the Jeff. Davis Government and its leaders. They say that if they arm their negroes, the whites will not fight; they will desert first. They have not a brigade in their army they can trust on picket; they have to place three videttes; one to watch us, the one in the rear to watch him, and still another to watch both. Occasionally the three come in together.

This is no time for the North to talk of peace by negotiation. All we ask is to have our decimated ranks filled up by volunteers, and when the campaign again opens we will soon, under the leadership of such men as Gens. Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, Meade and others, will make a peace that will be honorable and lasting through coming time; and one that we may be proud of when that dear old Flag once more waves throughout every portion of the so-called Confederacy. Then we can return home with the sweet consciousness of knowing that we have done our duty to ourselves, to our Country, to Humanity, and to God.

Let the State take it in hand and quickly fill up our thinned ranks by volunteers—not by substitutes, for the most of them are not worth the ground to bury them. They do not come to put down rebellion, but for the bounty, with the intention of deserting at the first opportunity. They will not do their duty; they cannot be trusted. It is a disgrace to the old members of the 1st Jersey Brigade, which was never known to falter in the hour of danger, that we cannot be filled up by volunteers. The boys are in good spirits, the Paymaster having just left us, filling our pockets with greenbacks—the most of which the men are sending home. In the meantime let us rest content that the time is fast coming when rebellion will be among the things that were—laid snugly away in history, as a warning to future generations. “From the First New Jersey Brigade,” Newark Daily Advertiser, March 3, 1865.

The letter has almost everything you want from a winter camp perspective. Quotes about the draft, volunteers, duty, leadership, warning against future rebellion, and a firm expectation of what’s going to happen when fighting resumes. The specifics of the account of the Confederate logging team deserting to the lines is likely a campfire exaggeration, but, as frequently with rumors, as grounded in truth. Union and Confederate fatigue parties did chop down trees alongside one another in piece and southerners frequently used that as the easiest of many opportunities to enter Union lines.

From February 15 to 25, 1865, 1,094 Confederates deserted the Army of Northern Virginia. From February 26 to March 8, another 779 left, and between March 9 and 18, an additional 1,061 walked away from Lee’s army. “In barely more than a month, nearly three thousand Confederate soldiers left the ranks, or one in every nineteen men,” tabulated historian Will Greene. Furthermore, the Confederates opposite the 10th New Jersey provided the highest number, 503 men leaving Cadmus Wilcox and Henry Heth’s Third Corps divisions in the ten days before the letter was written. [A. Wilson Greene, The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 83.]

Retlaw Ekard appeared as the penname at the bottom of the newspaper article. Reverse the letters around and you have Walter Drake, the presumed author, who was a corporal in Company E of the 10th New Jersey Infantry. I have been unable to find too much biographical information on the soldier. Census records show that he born around 1842-1843 and still lived at home in Newark, New Jersey, with his father, a grocer, mother, and large family at the outbreak of the Civil War. Despite his harsh assessment of conscripts, some military accounts show he was drafted. Other records suggest he may have served in the navy for a brief stint. Either way, he joined the 10th New Jersey on February 29, 1864.

Drake showed up on a June 14, 1864 list of the sick and wounded in Philadelphia hospitals, but after returning to his unit, he received a promotion to corporal on January 31, 1865. He did not overstate the New Jersey Brigade’s need for new volunteers. Hard fighting, expired enlistments, and the reluctance to disband a veteran organization produced a situation in which the 1st and 4th New Jersey regiments were consolidated into a single battalion, the 2nd New Jersey Infantry consisted of two companies, and the 3rd New Jersey Infantry just one company. The 10th and 15th New Jersey Infantry brought greater numbers into the field and the newly organized 40th New Jersey rounded out the brigade. Some veterans skeptically greeted the freshly minted unit, their arrival stood in contrast to the exodus out of the Confederate lines.

In his recent study of morale within the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and 1865, Steven Sodergren concludes, “As an increasing number of Confederate soldiers deserted to the lines of the Army of the Potomac, Federal troops came to the unavoidable conclusion that this was a sign of a rapidly approaching victory… The belief that the Southern cause was on the verge of extinction proved of immense benefit to Northern soldiers besieging Petersburg in the final months of the war. The appearance, numbers, and words of Confederate deserters all indicated this to be true, and Union soldiers used this as a reason to carry on in the trenches.” [Steven E. Sodergren, The Army of the Potomac in the Overland & Petersburg Campaigns: Union Soldiers and Trench Warfare (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017), 223-224.]

Lee’s army would not melt away completely on its own. The Union soldiers knew they had to defeat it in battle to bring the war to an end and the Sixth Corps followed through on its opportunity to land the death blow to the rebellion on April 2nd. Old soldiers and new fought well that morning. Frank Fesq, a member of the 40th Infantry, even earned the Medal of Honor for capturing the flag of the often unfortunate 18th North Carolina Infantry. Walter Drake’s letter provides additional support for the role that confidence played in the decisive success of the Breakthrough.

3 Responses to A Petersburg Picket’s Letter

  1. For those who praise Grant’s every frown as if he were the master of strategic wisdom, in the end it all boiled down to outlasting and immobilizing an enemy with vastly inferior resources. Grant’s ability to get Lincoln to buy into this and stay with it during the bloodletting of 1864 is his greatest victory.

  2. My Petersburg fantasy is that the Yanks would encourage Southern desertion by cooking vats of chicken soup upwind of nearby Confederate lines.
    According to Wikipedia, the 18th North Carolina lost their flag twice before Petersburg and were responsible for Stonewall’s wounding at Chancellorsville.
    Another great article.

  3. I enjoy reading observations from the common soldier more than what the generals did

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