A Pennsylvania Family on Petersburg’s Front Line

A Pennsylvania family found themselves at the epicenter of the final six months of the Civil War. No primary evidence is available yet to date to share that plight in their own words, but in the time since I researched the battle on their property and wrote Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, I have found new source material from those who knew them. Thus, we can slowly continue to piece together the family’s precarious situation.

John Hart was born on December 31, 1814, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He married Mary Eliza Johnson on December 28, 1854, and the couple moved to Dinwiddie County shortly thereafter as part of a large influx of Pennsylvania and New York families into the Petersburg region. John’s younger brother had also moved to Virginia on his own. After receiving a medical doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1845, Joseph Sackett Hart, 1817-1892, relocated to Fairfax County. Joseph owned over 600 acres near Chantilly and, due to his Unionist sympathies, was held in arrest by Confederate forces during both Bull Run campaigns.

The Hart family’s listing in the 1860 Population Schedule Listing for Dinwiddie County. (National Archives)

Down in Dinwiddie, John operated a market farm on Squirrel Level Road—likely along the modern-day stretch called Smith Grove Road—and the couple had five children: John Lyman Hart, 1855-1920; Sarah Ellen Hart, 1857-1937; Elizabeth Hough Hart, 1859-1860; Mary Eliza (Hart) Rolfe, 1861-1923; and Martin Johnson Hart, 1862-1919. On November 6, 1862, John began the process of purchasing a home and twenty-acre farm for his family on Duncan Road.

The property once belonged to William E. Boisseau, of nearby Tudor Hall. After the patriarch’s death in 1838, the family began slowly splitting up the large plantation. On March 9, 1859, Athaliah Boisseau, William’s widow, sold a tract on the opposite side of a branch of Arthur’s Swamp from her house. Charles H. Carr, a native of Otsego County, New York, initially bought the property for $300 and began building a one-and-a-half story Gothic Revival frame cottage. Coerced into the Confederate military early in the Civil War, Carr first served in a county militia organization, but the unit soon merged into the 41st Virginia Infantry. Carr spent the summer of 1862 in military hospitals battling dysentery and typhoid fever before committing suicide on July 7, after which his widow Aria sought to sell the property. John Hart agreed to pay $1,500 for the home and small orchard around it, but he could only afford $700 up front. He planned to slowly chip away at the remainder but had been unable to complete the transaction by the time the war came to his doorstep.

This wartime map of Dinwiddie County by Confederate cartographer Albert H. Campbell shows the residences–prior to the 1862 sale–of the Boisseaus and Carrs in the upper left and the Harts in the bottom middle. (Library of Congress)

In June 1864, the Armies of the Potomac and the James launched their first assaults on the eastern side of Petersburg. Unable to storm the full line of defenses at the outset, they briefly settled on siege operations against the city. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, however, quickly abandoned that method as well and planned what became a series of multi-pronged offensives against both Petersburg and Richmond—twenty miles to the north—and the plank roads and railroads that supplied the cities and their Confederate defenders. These maneuvers proceeded at a frustratingly slow pace, but the massive supply base at City Point, continued support from President Abraham Lincoln, and success in other theaters allowed Grant the time to connect the offensives into a winning strategy.

The Union capture of the Petersburg (& Weldon) Railroad in August 1864 cut the direct route in between Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and its supplies and two-way reinforcements in North Carolina. Unable to reopen the line, Lee redirected its traffic into caravans on the Boydton Plank Road, which entered Petersburg’s western outskirts via Dinwiddie County, and began two new lines of entrenchments to protect the supply route. Realizing that he did not have the manpower for an infantry garrison along the full stretch of defenses, Lee kept a mobile reserve near Battery 45 along Petersburg’s inner Dimmock Line to respond when the next Union offensive tripped over the first set of defenses along Squirrel Level Road.

The Hart’s new home stood along Duncan Road one mile south of where it ran into the plank road. The line of entrenchments guarding the latter ran right behind their house and by late September the family found themselves right in the path of the next Union thrust. Grant instructed Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to target the South Side Railroad while the Army of the James launched attacks on the defenses southeast of Richmond. Historians collectively referred to these movements as the Fifth Offensive, while the engagements themselves have dozens of individual names referring to the nearby farms and forts.

On the last day of September 1864, elements of the Union V and IX Corps swarmed over the Squirrel Level Road line and then realigned to push for the Boydton Plank Road. The farms of Albert Boisseau, Robert Jones, William Peebles, and Oscar Pegram witnessed the heaviest troop concentrations and combat through the end of the three days of fighting, but the carnage spilled onto the Hart property several times. On September 30, Brig. Gen. John F. Hartranft sent the 2nd and 20th Michigan Infantry across Arthur’s Swamp in the direction of the Hart house to guard the flank of the IX Corps’ northward movement up Church Road. Dismounted Confederate cavalry prowled near the Hart house waiting for an opportunity to strike while Lee’s reserve quickly mobilized and slammed into the disjointed Union drive. The IX Corps retreat exposed the two Michigan regiments at the edge of the Hart Farm, who then suffered greatly when forced to slog their way back through the marsh to rejoin their brigade.

After a Confederate counteroffensive failed to retake the Squirrel Level Road the following day, the Army of the Potomac once again moved onto the Hart Farm on October 2. With the IX Corps concentrated once more on the Church Road corridor, Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott brought his II Corps division forward to protect the army’s left flank. Lieutenant Colonel George Zinn led a four-regiment demi-brigade toward the Hart house to probe the strength of the Confederate defenses. Dismounted cavalry again held the line and urgently called for support as Zinn’s command crept forward. Two of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s brigades rushed south along the plank road from Battery 45 and shuffled into the earthworks near the Hart house in time to violently halt Zinn’s advance.

Though Meade’s operation ground to a halt, the Confederates had failed to drive the Union army off the field. U.S. military engineers laid out a line of entrenchments extending from the Petersburg Railroad to Church Road and eventually completed a spur of the military railroad connecting the new fortified encampments back to the City Point hub. Six months after the Fifth Offensive, Meade’s army would utilize the ground it had gained that fall to finally launch the decisive assault against Lee’s lines.

The Hart Farm as it appeared in great detail in this section of a postwar map by the U.S. Topographic Engineers. Note the two artillery positions constructed on either side of the home and the winter cabins along Duncan Road, which was temporarily rerouted behind the line of defenses for safe use. (National Archives)

Brigadier General William MacRae’s five North Carolina regiments, who had helped repulse Zinn on October 2, meanwhile improved the defenses on the farm. The earthworks on the property included a two-gun artillery redan built 400 feet to the northwest of the home to overlook a branch of Arthur’s Swamp and a six-gun battery 600 feet to the southwest. The Tar Heel soldiers eventually settled into winter quarters around the Hart’s home and constructed rows of cabins along Duncan Road. Julius A. Lineback described the one he and two other musicians in the 26th North Carolina Infantry built for themselves on the property in a letter written in early November:

“Henry, Charlie and I have a place dug out about two feet deep, several logs added on top of the ground for walls, with a couple of flies stretched over for a roof, making a snug house as you could well imagine. At the front end we have a nice fireplace and chimney, aside of the door and at the back, another excavation covered with logs, brush and dirt, that serves us for a pantry. Whilst I am writing, I am watching a kettle of fruit cooking for my dinner. You had better come and dine with me. I’ll have potatoes and onions too, if you are fond of them. Since we received our boxes from home last week we have been living like kings.”

John Hart had not been at home with his family during the fighting and encampment around Petersburg. The expanded Confederate conscription laws of 1864 forced him to enlist into the Dinwiddie Reserves on April 16 of that year and when the Union army threatened Petersburg the unit immediately activated into Company B, 3rd Battalion Virginia Reserves. Hart, however, did not have to serve in a combat role. Throughout the campaign, the forty-nine-year-old was detailed as a teamster driving a baggage wagon in Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps.

His family’s living situation in his absence later horrified one of Mary’s acquaintances. Charlotte Elizabeth McKay prominently served as a nurse for the Army of the Potomac. She returned to Petersburg in the winter of 1865-1866 to assist with a large Freedmen’s Bureau project operating out of the former encampment of the 50th New York Engineers at Poplar Springs. She traveled throughout the countryside during her extended stay and befriended Mary Hart, commenting on her wartime dilemma: “Her husband was conscripted in the rebel army, and she left alone the care of her children nearly all of the time. Imagine a Union woman living unprotected on a rebel line of fortification!”

However, with his father away, ten-year-old Lyman Hart bonded with the Confederate soldiers encamped around the property. He particularly befriended the twenty-year-old Andrew Jones Hunter, a sergeant in Company E, 11th North Carolina Infantry, whose shelter was right in the Hart’s yard. The family seemingly made do with their lot as best they could as they refused to abandon their home.

Opinions among MacRae’s Brigade varied as to the living conditions they experienced while encamped around the Harts. “The weather has often been very extreme, but the troops have all enjoyed much of comfort and very good health, Sergeant Major Murdoch J. McSween, a frequent correspondent in the 26th North Carolina Infantry, wrote to his local paper in late February. “Our rations are enough to live on, but were it not for supplies from home many a North Carolina soldier would suffer.” However, Captain Benjamin W. Justice, a commissary officer in MacRae’s Brigade (previously highlighted in a blog article), described a depressing scene around him at the start of spring.

“The fields are yet bare & brown, the lean, hungry army animals having consumed every thing that could appease the gnawings of hunger. Fences are scattered or burned as fuel. The woods are nearly all cleared away to make fuel or building material. Even barns & outhouses have been torn down & destroyed. The desolating foot of war has left its impress on all this fertile, smiling region.”

Stray shots occasionally struck the house, particularly on March 25, 1865, when a large artillery duel broke out during a nearby engagement centered on the Jones Farm. The house nevertheless remained standing, and the Harts found refuge from the gunfire in the cellar. Remarkably, even the family orchard survived both the combat and encampment. “The fruit trees are blooming very fast here,” noted Corporal Benjamin H. Freeman, 44th North Carolina Infantry, in late spring. “Our encampments are in a large ‘Orchard’ in front of Mrs. Hart’s house, her house is in the same camp, the line runs through her yard, she still stays here.”

After the Fifth Offensive, the active fighting for the most part shifted further southwest into Dinwiddie County, as Grant and Meade sought to seize the supply lines past the end of the fixed Confederate defenses. Unable to regain the strategic initiative, the Army of Northern Virginia continued stretching itself outward from Petersburg in response. The final offensive began on March 29, 1865, when two Union infantry corps and Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s cavalry pushed for the Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad beyond. MacRae’s Brigade departed the Hart Farm that night and marched south to Hatcher’s Run to contest this movement. The Union VI Corps, now encamped behind the fortifications constructed on the Fifth Offensive battlefield, meanwhile possessed standing orders to assault the line of entrenchments opposite them should the Confederates strip troops—as they did—to counter Grant’s mobile strike force.

The Confederates continued rotating troops toward the sensed point of danger, and early in the morning on April 1, Lt. Col. Eric Erson led two of MacRae’s regiments, the 11th and 52nd North Carolina Infantry, back to their old position at the Hart house. That afternoon Meade instructed Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, commanding the VI Corps, to attack the earthworks in his front. Wright carefully drafted his orders for an early morning assault on April 2 and sought to utilize the ravines created by Arthur’s Swamp as it meandered out of the Confederate earthworks near Tudor Hall and the Hart house.

An overnight artillery barrage once again drove the Harts into their cellar while the 14,000 infantrymen in Wright’s corps quietly massed in between the lines preliminary to their attack. At 4:40 a.m., April 2, they surged forward. Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s division charged onto the Hart Farm, with Col. William S. Truex’s brigade aiming for the six-gun battery and Col. J. Warren Keifer’s brigade utilizing Arthur’s Swamp to slice through the line just north of the Hart house. Lieutenant William T. Peet commanded a section of two ordinance rifles from the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues in the redan overlooking the marshy ravine. They rushed to their guns after the pickets sounded the alarm and began frantically firing upon the massive assault.

Seymour’s men continued onward through the artillery blasts and closed within rifle musket range of the defenders. Erson’s two regiments did not bother pausing to pick out a target as they fired into the darkness. Seemingly all at once the blue wave struck across nearly a mile long front guarded by Erson’s pair of regiments and two brigades from Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division. “I was shooting at Yanks in front of me where they were thick as black birds,” recalled Private John C. Warlick, 11th North Carolina Infantry. “They had broke our line on our left & come on us on our left flank. I had seen them, but thought it was our own men until a Cap’t who was in front of his men with sword drawn whacked me over the head twice. Before I realized my situation his men were right at his heels with fixed bayonets.” First Sergeant Jacob S. Bartlett had a similar encounter but managed to escape:

“On our left they came with a tremendous yell, while in our front they were advancing without noise. We directed our fire toward the noise, it not being light enough to see those in front. My attention was so much attracted to the left the Yankees were coming over the breastworks, about four rods to my right, before I knew they were there. I looked around and saw that there was no one there except myself and the Yankees. I might not have known that they were there had they not been yelling and shooting at the boys who ran before I did. Well, I felt very light and was anxious to see how fast I could run, so I set out for a foot race and when I quit running, I looked back and could not see a Yankee any where. I know I ran fast, for the balls they shot at me, never overtook me and as I passed the ones they shot before I started, I could hear them whistling through the air; Richmond and Petersburg were both gone and so was I, and I kept going.”

Sergeant Andrew Hunter also evaded capture but regretted being unable to bid farewell to his Hart hosts as he scampered away from the Union breakthrough. A VI Corps color bearer soon planted his flag directly in rear of the house and Mary emerged from the cellar as other Union soldiers began to swarm the structure. Charlotte McKay afterward recorded what she learned from Mary about the family’s experience that morning.

“They were preparing to set fire to the house when a Federal officer rode up and drove them away. Shells and bullets were flying thickly over the house, and the soldiers began to batter down the door. In vain she entreated them to spare the house, protesting that they were from the North, and loved the Union. They declared that a Union woman could not live so near the rebel lines and would have treated her roughly, had not another officer come to the rescue. Laying his hand upon her head he said, ‘My dear Madam, I would not have a hair of your head hurt for the world, but go into the cellar, and stay there with your children until the shelling is over for your house may be riddled with balls, and I will place a guard around it.”

The rest of Heth’s division still manned their lines south to Hatcher’s Run, so Seymour’s men left the family alone and turned south to sweep behind the lines, clearing the Confederate brigades one at a time as they expanded the breach. Mary ventured out once more to survey the carnage. Nearly a century later, her granddaughter Mary (Rolfe) Johnson, 1881-1957, would share the family story of a Union soldier who had fallen mortally wounded at the front steps. Mary Hart and a Miss Potts—presumably an enslaved house servant whom the Harts hired from a nearby plantation—attended to the man, who gave Mary his belongings and implored her to write to his family. The two women buried him in the garden, and, according to Mary Johnson, his father came after the war to take the body home.

John Hart had his own dilemma that morning, being captured while fulfilling his teamster obligations somewhere else along the broken lines. Despite his northern birth and professed loyalty to the Union, he was held as a prisoner of war and sent to Hart’s Island, New York. John did not receive his release until June 20, at which point he immediately journeyed back to Dinwiddie. Granddaughter Mary would later share another family story about John’s return home, writing, “… he stopped in the yard and had his wife bring out water & clean clothes & he washed up & burned his old clothes before he dared enter the house—he was so dirty & lousy.”

John Hart’s service record notes his capture at Petersburg on April 2. (National Archives)

Unable to fulfill the bill of sale from Aria Carr during the war, John continued struggling to accumulate enough money afterward. Furthermore, Mary passed away in 1870 at the age of forty-two. John sought damages through the Southern Claims Commission, which was established to compensate residents impacted by the war, provided they could prove their loyalty. He evidently claimed that Confederate authorities conscripted him against his will into what ultimately proved to be a non-combat role. Neighbors Joseph Claypole and Erastus Armstrong testified on Hart’s behalf. Claypole came to Dinwiddie from New Jersey in the 1850s and Armstrong, like the Carrs, originally hailed from Otsego County, New York. Hart reciprocally provided a testimony for the latter’s claim. The examining board “satisfied itself fully as to the loyalty to the U.S. Government both at the present time and throughout the Rebellion of the said John Hart,” but no record shows any compensation that Hart might have received.

Advertisement for the Hart Farm’s auction in the December 12, 1874 Petersburg Rural Messenger

Aria Carr meanwhile suffered as she worked to provide a living while raising her fatherless children in Petersburg. With Hart still unable to pay off the property several years after the war, Aria filed suit against him. The court ordered Hart to pay what remained within thirty days or they would sell the land at auction. Aria had hoped her father-in-law David G. Carr, who had briefly served as a state senator during Reconstruction, could help with the matter. His deteriorating health prevented him from lending much help and Aria eventually had to file suit against him to fully regain the title. David nevertheless served as commissioner for the property and highlighted the cottage and its orchard in newspaper listings leading up to the 1874 auction. No bidders reached the minimum amount and the property sat in limbo until J.C. Smith bought the farm for a mere $400 in 1876.

After their sale, John Hart and his family moved into Petersburg and lived in the western part of town. Lyman and Sarah, his two older children never married, and remained together in Petersburg, residing for much of their late life at 833 Hinton Street near which Lyman operated a grocery. Mary Eliza Hart married a Petersburg resident and started her own family in the city while youngest son Martin moved north to near Philadelphia. John passed away on September 9, 1894. A local newspaper remembered him as “an old and well-known citizen.”

Many of the Harts were buried in unmarked graves in the family plot in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery.

Lyman’s soldier friend Andrew Hunter returned to the Charlotte area after the war. Hunter worked as a rural postal carrier and was prominently involved in veteran organizations. The two reunited when Hunter passed through Petersburg in 1896, and in 1904 Lyman traveled down to North Carolina and met more of the veterans who had camped and fought around his home. Hunter returned to Petersburg three years afterward with plans to visit the notable sites of his military service.

Lyman took him to his former home, then owned by Godfried Novotny, a Bohemian immigrant. They tried the water from the old well Hunter’s company had used during the war and found it acceptable. An apple orchard had grown up through the old parade ground. The earthworks were still largely standing in good shape, though covered in trees and vines, and large pines covered the six-gun battery. The house itself still showed damage from the war. Hunter commented to Novotny that he had helped build the earthworks, to which the latter replied, “I wish you would help me tear them down, as they are in my way.” Eventually, new property owners plowed over much of the entrenchments, including the entirety of the six-gun battery. I previously found a careful eye can still trace the path of the missing earthworks across the old Hart Farm and wrote about it here.

Likewise, the story of the Harts themselves is still open to discovery. The accounts of Charlotte McKay and Andrew Hunter, in particular, only came to my attention thanks to the bulk digitization of many historic newspapers. Curiously, despite accumulating far more material on Keifer and Truex’s brigades, I am also yet to find any documentation from Union soldiers corroborating any of the stories about the family on April 2. Perhaps more resources will further reveal the story of a northern family who lived right in the middle of the Confederate lines at the end of the war.


“A War Time Acquaintance,” Charlotte Observer, October 15, 1904.

Bartlett, J.S., Recollections, #46-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bergeron, Arthur W., Jr., “Historical Significance of the Hart Farm, Dinwiddie County, Virginia,” March 2000.

Chapman, Craig S., More Terrible Than Victory: North Carolina’s Bloody Bethel Regiment 1861-1865 (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1998).

Davis, W.W.H., History of the Hart Family, of Warminster, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (Doylestown, PA: Privately Printed, 1867).

“From the North Carolina Soldiers,” Fayetteville Semi-Weekly Observer, March 9, 1865.

Greene, A. Wilson, The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion, Second Edition (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008).

Hart, Raymond Sagar, “Supplemental Record of the Hart Family of Warminster, Bucks County,” 1969.

Hess, Earl J., In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Hunter, A.J., “The Reunion at Richmond,” Charlotte Observer, July 8, 1907.

Justice, Alfred Rudulph, Ancestry of Jeremy Clarke of Rhode Island and Dungan Genealogy (Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Printing Company, 1922).

Justice, Benjamin Wesley, Papers, Special Collections, The Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

Lineback, J.A., “Extracts from a Civil War Diary,” Winston-Salem Western Sentinel, February 16, 1915.

McKay, Mrs. C.E., “Along the Lines,” Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, May 4, 1866.

National Register of Historic Places, Petersburg Breakthrough Battlefield, Dinwiddie County, Virginia, National Register #03001095.

Sommers, Richard H., Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981).

Union Provost Marshals’ File of Paper Relating to Individual Citizens, M345, Record Group 109, National Archives.

“Work of the Reaper,” Richmond Dispatch, September 11, 1894.

Wright, Stuart T., ed., The Confederate Letters of Benjamin H. Freeman (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1974).

1 Response to A Pennsylvania Family on Petersburg’s Front Line

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: