Monday, June 23, 2014

To Richmond at last (part one)

Accounts of the capture of Richmond in early April of 1865 were plentiful. By then, the Union soldiers knew that destroying Robert E. Lee’s army was their real mission, but capturing the capital retained great symbolic meaning.

The story I used in Our War was that of Charles “Carleton” Coffin, the Boston Journal correspondent from Boscawen, N.H. He risked life and limb to reach Richmond on April 3 and was richly rewarded for his effort. The next day, he marched through the city’s streets with Abraham Lincoln as freed slaves fawned over the president.

But another New Hampshireman, George A. Bruce, was there even before Carleton. Bruce, who was from Mont Vernon, was a 25-year-old captain in the 13th New Hampshire, one of the first Union regiments to enter the city. He wrote a report the night of April 2 and a full account soon after.

Many years after the war, still seeking to correct errors in the way the events had been portrayed, he wrote “The Capture and Occupation of Richmond.” He presented the paper to the Military History Society of Massachusetts on April 15, 1915.

This is a condensed first part of Bruce’s story, taking the reader up to his realization that he was about to head into the rebel capital.

Brig. Gen. Charles Devens
Bruce had already gone to some trouble to correct the assertion that U.S. Colored Troops were the first to enter the city. Except for an African-American cavalry regiment that arrived in the city an hour after a brigade under Brig. Gen. General Charles Devens got there, no African-American soldiers got within two miles of the city.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler started the myth by speaking publicly of the poetic justice in former slaves first occupying the Confederate capital. George Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s wartime secretaries, picked up the the claim when they published their Life of Lincoln in Century Magazine. On Bruce’s advice, they corrected the error it in the book.

Bruce assured his listeners that his account relied only on documents he had written at the time, not from “a record made up from memory stretching back through the haze of half a century.”

Since mid-1864, the two armies had faced each other south of Petersburg and Richmond from 30-40-mile lines of trenches broken only by the Appomattox and James rivers. The distance between these lines varied from 100 yards to a mile. “So close was the contact that we could almost feel the pulse and hear the breathing of the hostile army,” Bruce wrote.

The Union men sensed that the war was near its end, but the winter and spring were cold and wet. Soldiers built houses of pine from nearby forests and warmed themselves with log fires. In December the Union armies reorganized. The 13th New Hampshire wound up in the 24th Corps in Gen. Devens’s division of the Army of the James. The African-American troops became the 25th Corps.

Bruce described the next three months as a period of “watchful waiting,” with large picket details at night and a full line of battle in the trenches each morning at 5. A tacit truce between the two sides – where the white troops were stationed at least – forbade firing by the pickets.

For the first time during the war, great numbers of Confederate soldiers began to desert to Union lines. It was “a very poor night when none came in,” Bruce wrote, and one brigade welcomed 40 deserters in a single day. “So eager were the later conscripts to escape the perils of the service that the prejudice of the color line was ignored.” Many deserted to the 25th Corps, “happy when having gained the protection of their former slaves.”

The deserters shared information aplenty. They described Confederate defenses, the strength of rebel armaments and the location of buried torpedoes. They reported that despondency had overcome southern troops and civilians alike. Bad news reached them almost daily, as Union armies captured Nashville, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, N.C.

The last snow fell on March 24, “what we call in New England the robin snow,” wrote Bruce. Three days later, the Army of the James, except for Devens’s division and a division of African-American troops, moved south of Petersburg. These two divisions, under Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, were left to hold the lines north of the James.

Devens moved to Weitzel’s headquarters. As a member of Devens’s staff, Bruce moved with him. Because the telegraph line terminated there, Bruce began to see Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s messages and orders to Weitzel.

On April 1, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troops turned Lee’s right at Five Forks, opening the way for an attack along the entire line the next day. This was a death blow to the Confederacy, and the day itself, a Sunday, seemed glorious to Bruce.

“In Virginia the spring comes forward suddenly and with greater splendor than in our more northern latitude,” he wrote. “It seemed to me that a more perfect day could not have dawned on the earth since the creation than that battle-Sunday about Petersburg. The sky was cloudless, and through the hushed air I heard distinctly for the first time the church bells of Richmond some seven miles to the north, and at the same time, though less distinctly, the subdued murmur and roar of the battle fifteen miles to the south.”

Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel
At 11 a.m. he climbed a pine tree. He saw the Confederate works and could tell resistance to the Union attack was slight. He reported this to Devens, who sent him to Weitzel. The general cautiously observed that once the Union troops were in firing range, “we should find plenty of rebel heads showing themselves.” Weitzel, in Bruce’s view, was “an officer of much ability, but lacked confidence and the spirit of enterprise.” Bruce correctly guessed that Lee was about to retreat.

Devens put Bruce on night watch. Although the telegrams stopped, two deserters showed up in the middle of the night. Lee’s army was leaving, they told Bruce. He reported this intelligence to Devens, who ordered him to try to take the Confederate works opposite him if he could easily do so. Bruce rode to the brigades and then to the pickets to prepare them for the task.

“It was a warm, still night,” he wrote. “A soft wind, touched with the perfumes of earliest flowers and the first buds of spring, was moving gently from the west. The sky to the zenith was free from clouds, but toward the horizon a bank of smoky mists had settled, as is usual in that climate during the later hours of night.

“I cannot express the emotions with which I was stirred, as I rode alone through the night, with no sound heard and no object seen save the stars above and the wavy swells of the dusky earth beneath, with full authority, and with a full determination, to set in motion the right wing of the army, which I well knew would result in the immediate occupation of the Confederate capital and the speedy fall of the Confederate Government itself.”

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