Monday, February 3, 2020

Personality Spotlight - Lt. Col. John A. Bross, 29th USCI

Today's post comes courtesy of Mike Spencer, who serves as Secretary for the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation. Mike has been researching many of the Union forts that were built around Petersburg in 1864 and 1865. Many of these earthen fortifications were named for Union officers killed in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. You may remember his excellent article that I shared a while back on Fort DuShane. This one provides a nice biography of Lt. Col. John A. Bross.

Lt. Col. John A. Bross, 29th United States Colored Infantry

John Armstrong Bross was born on February 21st, 1826, in Milford, Pennsylvania. Bross eventually relocated to Chicago in 1848, where he would practice law. He held positions such as United States Marshall and Commissioner. He married his wife Isabelle “Belle” Mason in 1856. The couple had two children, a daughter Cora and a son named Mason. Tragically in July of 1861, just as the war was beginning, young Cora passed away at the age of 2 ½. This tragedy loomed over the remaining years of John’s life, leading him to write many letters and poetry in memoriam to his little daughter. His grief would remain strong until he met his own demise three years later while leading his men in battle.

In the early months of the war, Bross did not immediately join the ranks to fight. Understandably with his recent loss of his daughter, along with a successful career, John stayed home with his family. As the war moved into its second year in 1862, Bross finally answered the call to duty. He helped raise several units in his area of Illinois near Chicago. He would be appointed as Captain of Company A, 88th Illinois. With this command, Bross and his men saw action in the Western Theater at such battles as Perryville, Kentucky, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Tennessee, and Chickamauga in Georgia.

Once the state of Illinois finally approved the raising of United States Colored Troops (USCTs), Bross agreed to help raise and lead these men. He became Lieutenant Colonel of that unit, which became the 29th Infantry U.S. Colored Troops. We get a glimpse into this man’s dedication when we read the following quote from Lieutenant Colonel Bross that was heard at an event for the 29th as they prepared to go to Virginia.
"When I lead these men into battle, we shall remember Fort Pillow, and shall not ask for quarter. I leave a home and friends as dear as can be found on earth; but if it is the will of Providence that I do not return, I ask no nobler epitaph than that I fell for my country, at the head of this black and. blue regiment." (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pgs. 10-11)
He and the 29th joined the IX Corps in Virginia as the Overland Campaign was taking place in May of 1864. They did not take part in much fighting but were with the Union Army of the Potomac as they moved south of the James and Appomattox Rivers in June in its attempt to capture Petersburg. Once the initial attempts failed to capture that city, the 29th USCT joined the rest of the Union army in its war of attrition against Robert E. Lee’s army.

In July, Bross and his men were ordered to prepare for a coming assault against the Confederate defenses east of Petersburg. He and his men were specifically trained to assault the enemy works following a mine explosion that would blast a hole in their defenses. Shortly before the assault took place on July 30, 1864, Army of the Potomac commander General George Meade decided not to use the U.S. Colored Troops out of fear of the political backlash if the attack failed. Instead other units that were not as prepared as the USCTs were ordered in first. This shift in the plan no doubt played into the coming disaster that became the Battle of the Crater.

“Colonel Bross was about six feet in height, slender and compactly built. His features were regular and finely molded, and his countenance indicative of strongly marked character, and refined sensibilities. As an officer, his appearance was finer than that of a majority of those in command.” (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pg. 23) This man of honor and dignity, known also for his strong faith in God, had his brave troops ready on the morning of July 30th, the day that many in the Union ranks had been preparing for. At 4:40 a.m. the mine under the Confederate lines exploded, leaving a huge hole in the works. After an initial shock to both sides, Union troops of the IX Corps attacked, led by General James Ledlie’s Division. These troops gained the Confederate works and drove beyond the original line some, but were not prepared for the chaos and confusion that surrounded the Crater. It did not help that their commander, General Ledlie, failed to coordinate the attack well and was somewhere in the rear of his men and, later accused of being drunk. His men did not properly secure the outer trenches and many of them lingered in the actual Crater itself. These delays allowed for the Confederates to recover and respond with violent counterattacks, most notably led by General William Mahone.

General Burnside finally ordered General Ferrero’s division of Colored Troops forward. Colonel Sigfried’s brigade managed to gain some ground and push back Confederates who had started to gain the upper hand. Colonel Henry Thomas’ brigade, which contained the 29th USCT, tried to add to this success as well. Bross was personally leading the brigade into the fight. The brigade was devastated with canister fire and volleys of musketry as it descended into the confusion of the trenches north of the Crater and in some cases into the hole itself. Ferrero’s brigades managed to push a short distance beyond the Crater before withering under intense fire and falling back to the safety of a rear Confederate trench.
Burnside soon ordered one more attack to try and gain Cemetery Hill, which lay about 500 yards beyond Ferrero’s men. It was at this point, around 9:00 a.m. that Lieutenant Colonel Bross climbed out of the trench with the regimental flag in hand, and called on his men to follow him. Approximately 200 of his troops followed their leader forward. It was at this same time that General Mahone launched another powerful counterattack, stopping this last brave attempt by Bross and the USCTs to win the day. At this moment Bross planted the regimental flag in an attempt to rally his men, but “was struck by a minie bullet, in the left side of the head, and fell dead, uttering…’Oh Lord’.” (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pg. 17)

The Confederates soon pushed the Union troops back into the Crater or beyond their original trenches. Burnside ordered his Corps to withdraw, but not before a terrible slaughter took place in and around the Crater for a period of time before the firing stopped, ending this momentous and terrible battle. After the battle, the Confederates identified his body but decided to bury his body with his men.

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