Thursday, April 2, 2009

On This Day 144 Years Ago

As we approach the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War, I can't help but keep asking myself each day, "what important happened today?" That is an easy one for me on this particular day, because as I write this, I am not more than a quarter of a mile from where, on April 2, 1865, the scene pictured above occurred.

Today marks the 144th year since the Union Army of the Potomac (more specifically the Sixth Corps) broke through General Lee's thin Petersburg line held by the Army of Northern Virginia here in Dinwiddie County. Why is that important you might ask?

Well, it has been said many times that this was the beginning of the end of the Civil War. The Union breakthrough forced Lee to retreat into the inner defenses of Petersburg, and that night evacuate the city. But not only that...Lee knew that if Ulysses Grant captured Petersburg, the Confederate capital at Richmond would also fall as well. After Lee's lines were breached at Petersburg he sent President Jefferson Davis a telegram about what had just happened and advised the immediate evacuation of the Confederate government from Richmond. Lee moved his army westward out of Petersburg with the hope of eventually linking up with Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina to continue the war. Lee only made it about 90 miles west of Petersburg where he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox...just one week after the breakthrough at Petersburg.

Petersburg had been Grant's focus since June of 1864. For over nine long months Grant and Lee played a game of chess to decide who would remain. At 4:40 am on April 2nd check would be called by Grant. Checkmate would have to wait a week.

The Union's Sixth Corp, spearheaded by the Vermont brigade, formed for attack outside Union forts Welch and Fisher, only about a mile from the Confederate defensive earthwork fortifications. At 4:40 am the signal shot was fired and approximately 14,000 Union soldiers advanced as quietly as 14,000 men can. Confederate pickets fired warning shots and tried to scramble back to their main defenses...many were captured or shot. The sleepy Confederates quickly awoke and attempted to hold back the Union tide.

It is believed that Captain Charles G. Gould, leading a part of the 5th Vermont, was the first man to reach and cross the earthworks (pictured above). Gould upon reaching the top of the earthworks was shot at by a Confederate defender, but the weapon misfired. Gould jumped into the works and slayed his would be killer with his sword. He was immediately bayoneted in the face by another Confederate, and then hit over the head by a sword wielding Confederate officer. In the hand to hand fighting he was finally stabbed in the back by another bayonet. The roughly 2,800 Confederates however were greatly outnumbered by the waves of Union attackers, and the position was quickly brought under order as many Confederates fled rearward or were captured. Charles Gould was lucky...he survived his three vicious wounds and later received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

Later in the day, after the Sixth Corps had cleared any threats to their left flank, they turned to meet the last obstacle to Petersburg...Fort Gregg. About 300 Mississippians defended Fort Gregg against approximately 7,000 Union attackers. The defenders held out as long as they could. At one point they tried to hurl rocks and brick bats at the enemy when ammunition ran low. The Mississippians held long enough for Lee's army to reach the inner defenses that evening.

Today these historic grounds are preserved by Pamplin Historical Park and the National Park Service. The Confederate earthworks that remain in Dinwiddie County are some of the best preserved Civil War fortifications still in existence.

To close today's thoughts, and as the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War approaches, take a minute each day to think how what happened so long ago still affects your present existence.


  1. Tim, Do you think of the Civil War from a southern or northern perspective?

  2. John,
    That's a good question. Not so long ago I used to think of it strictly from a Southern perspective. But now I like to try to think of myself as being much more open minded and try view it from as many different angles as possible (Northern, Southern, women, African American, etc.) The war touched so many peoples' lives so deeply. Time has not erased some of the pain that those years brought. I think that is what makes the time period so fascinating.