Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Picket Duty


Picket duty during the Petersburg Campaign was one of the most trying responsibilities that a Civil War soldier faced. Whether he was fighting off mosquitos in summer, shivering in winter, or suppressing his fears of being attacked and captured by the enemy, he was required to sit in a dark rifle pit with few comforts and not fall asleep. It’s no wonder that most soldiers dreaded this task.

Writing to his local newspaper in 1882, Pvt. Patrick Henry Reilly, of Company L, 1st South Carolina Infantry, described his experience on picket duty the night before the April 2, 1865, Breakthrough at Petersburg: “During our last night on picket guard it seemed ominously still, and we heard, or imagined we heard, smothered orders and an occasional rattle of canteens, and we became impressed with the idea that the enemy meant mischief and were massing troops in our immediate front. . . . After a time the enemy’s movements became more apparent, for on the still night air came expressions not contained in the Holy Writ, confusion and noise. We felt that the enemy would soon advance.”

To break the tension one of Reilly’s comrades yelled out to the Federals to sing them a song. A Yankee yelled back requesting one from the Southerners. The South Carolinians sang out a short stanza about the Palmetto State. It fell quiet again, so the Confederates asked for a reply. A Union man yelled, “Hold on, Johnnie, we will give you a song directly.” Then suddenly, the charge was on!

Reilly described the dark early morning scene: “But this night’s fight was something terrible, and ‘twas well for us it was night, as this mighty host that was hurled against us would have swept us instantly from before them. . . . Just in front of us was a morass, which impeded the enemy’s advance on us, and we stood at our posts until the [earth]works on our right were in almost possession of the enemy, and our little band beat a hasty retreat and made double-quick time to the trenches.”

Pvt. Reilly somehow avoided capture at Petersburg and along the route to Appomattox, where he surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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