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1864 July 9: The 37th Wisconsin at the Second Battle of Petersburg

July 10, 2014

The following letter from Robert C. Eden, captain of Company B of the 37th Wisconsin Infantry, to the Madison, Wisconsin, State Journal, was reprinted in the July 9, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  The local Journal was interested in reprinting the letter because Company F of the 37th Wisconsin was Ellsworth Burnett’s company from Pierce and Saint Croix counties.

The Second Battle of Petersburg, or the Assault on Peterburg, was fought June 15-18, 1864.  The four days included repeated Union assaults that resulted in 11,386 total casualties for the Union, and 4,000 for the Confederates.

F R O M   T H E   3 7 TH   W I S C O N S I N.

The Battle Before Petersburgh [sic] .

Partial List of Losses.

Correspondence of the State Journal.

CAMP NEAR PETERSBURG, VA ;  June 20, ’64.

My  last letter left the 37th Wisconsin Volunteers in a state of peace on Arlington Heights, D. C.  Since then we have experienced the actual realities of warfare in sad and sober earnest.  On the 29th of May orders arrived for us to march for Alexandria, there to take transports for White House, on the Pamunkey river, on the following morning.  Accordingly at 7 o’clock  on the morning of the 30th we moved off, and after a rather fatiguing march, for the day was warm and still, we arrived at Alexandria, “all in good order and condition.”  There being no transports ready for us, we lay at Alexandria till the evening of the 31st, when the regiment embarked in three propellers which anchored in the stream till the following morning.

A mild and pleasant morning found us, on the 1st of June, steaming down the broad, still waters of the Potomac.  Slowly and steadily we steamed on past Mount Vernon, Acquia [sic] Creek, Belle Plain, Piney Point, Point Lookout, and many a place famed in the eventful past and present of this country’s history.  And so the hot afternoon sun shone down on our decks as we steamed down Chesapeake Bay on the young ebb tide, our steamer rising and falling lazily to the long swells setting in from the seaward.  At night we anchored at the mouth of York river, off the city of Yorktown, waiting for daylight before proceeding up the river.  At daybreak we weighed anchor, and standing up the river entered the Pamunkey at 10 A. M., and moored ship at White House shortly after noon.  Here we found all the bustle and stir attending the base of supplies of so large an army as that of the Potomac.  The Sanitary and Christian Commissions, in whose praise it is impossible to speak too highly, were there in active, willing and eager readiness.  Women refined and gentle, were busy around the thronged tents, ministering, as only women can minister, to the wants of the suffering wounded.  Fair hands, unused to toil, smoothed back the dark tangled hair, bathed the hot forehead, held the cooling cordial  to the heated lips, and performed all the disagreeable and revolting duties of hospital nurses uncomplainingly and cheerfully.  God bless the women of America !  they have not spared themselves in this our great struggle for national existence, and it stands recorded for them, be assured, both here and on high, “for as much as ye did it unto the least of these.”¹

We stayed here till Friday, June 10th, escorting wagon trains, guarding prisoners, &c.  On the 10th we marched at sunrise for Cold Harbor, and arrived there at 11 o’clock the same night.  We were assigned at once to the 1st brigade, 3d division, 9th army corps.  On the morning of the 12th we moved out to the second line of rifle pits, on Gaines’ Farm, eight miles south of Richmond, and at 9 o’clock in the evening of the same day marched out them with all possible quietness and secresy [sic].  Our destination was unknown, but we had a strong suspicion that our course was to be James river-wards, and this conjecture events finally showed to be correct.  But you will have heard, ere this reaches you, how we marched across the Chickahominy swamps, and the river of that name ;  how we crossed the James river, and how the great army changed its base to this point.   The night of June 16th found us in the front, hot and tired with a long march over dusty roads, day and night, with light rations and heavy baggage, during which many officers and men were sun struck.  But there is “no rest for the wicked” and even the righteous don’t fare much better in the Army of the Potomac.  The same night we were ordered to occupy and hold a line of rifle pits from which the rebels had just been driven.  This we did under a flanking fire which luckily did us no damage.  Here we lay all night keeping a sharp look out for “Johnnies” and of course not permitted to sleep.  The forenoon of Friday, June 17th, we rested, and in the afternoon were ordered up to charge a line of rebel works.  This seemed to us rather hard, for the men, unused to privations and hard marching were travel-worn and weary, but the boys brisking up at the news, entered the field of blood as gaily as a young lady her first ball room.  The rebel works were very strong, a double line of rifle pits in a V shape, flanked by two heavy batteries and commanding the whole field.  But the word was given, and amid a perfect hell-fire of a shot, shell, grape, canister and minie bullets, the 3d brigade rushed gallantly on.  Half of the distance had been crossed with comparatively small loss, when the order was passed down to the left to “swing round to the right.”  I was forcibly reminded of the charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade and Tennyson’s description of it, the words coming into my mind even then amid the noise and confusion of the battle :

“What though they know
Some one had blundered,
Theirs not question why,
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the jaws of death, into the gates of hell,
Stormed at the shot and shell,
Bravely they charged and well,
Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,
Charged the six hundred.”²

Our left swung round accordingly and became thereby exposed to a flanking fire from the left, besides a battery in front and the two lines of rebel pits.  Our men dropped thick and fast, when nearly one half had dropped, the order at length came to fall back, and our men retreated in good order to the breast works.

Our loss was very heavy, Major Kershaw³ and our color bearer were both shot through both legs, the latter, Sergt. Green4 of Co. C bringing the colors back in his teeth and drawing himself along  by his hands.  I am too young a soldier to understand strategy, but I must confess I can hardly see either the wisdom or expediency of taking raw troops, fatigued and wearied with long marches and short rations, into action without any rest and exposing them to a fire, which many veterans assure me, they have never seen equaled.  But “strategy is a big thing, my  boy.”  On Saturday we again advanced on the pits which the enemy, we found, had vacated the night before, and after marching in line of battle through a belt of timber reformed on the edge of an oatfield about half a mile in width.  Across this we again charged under a heavy fire, driving the enemy back and gaining possession of a railroad out in the middle of the field which we held.  We twice attempted to charge in the course of the afternoon, but were as often compelled to fall back on the railroad.

Our loss has been dreadful, amounting in killed and wounded to 188.  Our Lieut. Col., Major, three captains and four lieutenants are wounded, and one captain and lieutenant have since died.  These were Captain Stevens5 and Lieutenant Riddle.6   The latter, an officer of much promise and a universal favorite, was killed at the commencement of the charge across the oatfield while leading and cheering on his men.  Captain Stevens was shot by a sharpshooter while in the railroad cut.  We have just received orders to be ready to march at a minute’s notice, so I must conclude.

I will merely add that all hands have credit given them for the gallantry they have shown in the four charges we have made and I will not attempt to particularize any.

I am writing this on two “hard-tack” boxes on the field of battle of Saturday, and if, like Noah’s dove, I ever find a resting place for the sole of my foot, I will further notify you of our wanderings.

Adieu,           R. C. E.  [Robert C. Eden]

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37Th REGIMENT—LT. COL. DOOLITTLE.7—That portion of the 37th Wisconsin regiment, which has been sent forward, has already distinguished itself in battle.  The Washington correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, in speaking of the conduct of western regiments in the recent battle near Petersburg, makes the following favorable mention of the 37th Wisconsin, and its commander, Lt. Col. DOOLITTLE :

“The 37th Wisconsin also made itself a reputation before Petersburg, excelled by no other regiment.  Its Colonel (Doolittle), son of the Senator of that name, is spoken of as having led his men to the very muzzles of the enemy’s guns, with a valor and determination which are praised by all, officers and privates.  He was wounded, but not fatally, by a fragment of a shell.”

1.  This is a paraphrase from the book of Matthew in the Bible, chapter 25, verse 40: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
2.  “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Eden mixed several stanzas together and added some words of his own, which is understandable since he undoubtedly did not have a book of poems with him.  This poem is easily found on the Internet if you want to compare the original to Eden’s memory of it.
3.  William J. Kershaw, from Big Spring, was wounded June 17, 1864, at Petersburg. He was appointed lieutenant colonel September 27, 1864, but was not mustered; he resigned October 18, 1864.
4.  William H. Green, from York, was a sergeant with Company C of the 37th. He was recommended for promotion for gallantry in action at Petersburg, where he was wounded in both legs on June 17, 1864, “after which he crawled from the field dragging his colors with his teeth.” Unfortunately he died from his wounds on July 17, 1864.
5.  Samuel Stevens, from Grand Rapids, was captain of Company A of the 37th. He was killed in action on June 18, 1864, at Petersburg.
6.  Freeman B. Riddle, from Beloit, was the 2nd lieutenant of Company C of the 37th. He was killed in action on June 17, 1864, at Petersburg.
7.  Anson O. Doolittle, from Racine, had been commissioned Samuel Harriman’s lieutenant colonel on April 2, 1864. He resigned September 7, 1864.

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