The end was approaching.
By late March 1865, “we felt sure that he (Ulysses Simpson Grant) was preparing some great movement, and this must be still to the left, to cut [Robert E.] Lee’s communications and envelop his existing lines,” said Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac.
The 1st Brigade included the 185th New York Infantry — “a noble body of men of high capability and character,” Chamberlain described that regiment — and the 198th Pennsylvania Infantry, which was “composed of fourteen full companies,” he said. The applicably named Col. Gustave Sniper led the New Yorkers, Col. Horatio Sickel the large Pennsylvania regiment.
The morning returns provided for Wednesday, March 29 indicated that Chamberlain could field “1,750 men for duty,” about 450 men fewer that the brigade’s authorized strength. Throughout the brigade’s camps, men wondered what would happen as the cold, rainy Virginia winter oozed into a cold, rainy Virginia spring.
Gen. Phil Sheridan already knew. “The Fifth Army Corps will move by the Vaughan Road at three A.M. to-morrow morning,” Grant notified him on Tuesday, March 28. Union cavalry would advance toward Dinwiddie Court House “at as early an hour as you can,” and the 2nd Corps (infantry-heavy like the 5th Corps) would step off “at about nine A.M.”
Grant instructed Sheridan not “to attack the enemy in his entrenched position, but to force him out, if possible” so Union troops could attack and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia in open country. If Sheridan’s cavalry could capture the Southside Railroad (one of Lee’s two remaining rail-based supply lines), they could “destroy it to some extent.”
With Sheridan and the cavalry and infantry went several Maine regiments:
• The 1st Maine Cavalry rode to Dinwiddie with his Cavalry Corps;
• The 17th Maine and 19th Maine infantry regiments and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment marched with the 2nd Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys;
• Tramping with the 5th Corps (commanded by Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren) were the 16th Maine, the 1st Maine Sharpshooters, and an infantry regiment forever associated with Chamberlain and an obscure, tree-capped mound in distant Gettysburg.
The 20th Maine Infantry, now commanded by Lt. Col. Walter Morrill, belonged to the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division. Led by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, an Elmira, N.Y. attorney who had joined the 21st New York Infantry in May 1861, the brigade also included soldiers from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Sheridan intended to sideslip the Confederate entrenchments extending west from Petersburg. Just southwest of Hatcher’s Run, the Southern earthworks ran from the Boydton Plank Road two miles west along the White Oak Road, than turned north along the Claiborne Road. The undefended White Oak Road ran west approximately another 4½ miles to Five Forks, a key crossroad that Sheridan should capture with his cavalry on March 29. From Five Forks, his cavalry could gallop north about 2 miles on the Ford Road to capture the Southside Railroad.
“All were animated with confidence of quick success” for Sheridan’s campaign, Chamberlain said. Heading out “at daylight” on March 29, the 5th Corps reached the Vaughan Road. The 1st Brigade arrived at “the Chapple House, about two miles from Dinwiddie, early in the forenoon,” Chamberlain recalled.
“It was a rough country through which we passed,” noticed Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry. “A dense forest covered a large portion of the country, broken here and there by small clearings. There were many ridges of land, broken and ragged with rocks and deep ravines, through which rushed and roared deep streams of water.”
Around noon, 1st Division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin ordered the 1st Brigade to march northeast on the Vaughan Road, turn north (left) on the Quaker Road, and probe a Confederate salient near Burgess’s Mill on Hatcher’s Run. Griffin worried about a possible enemy counterattack rolling south on the Quaker Road.
The 1st Brigade found that enemy troops had destroyed a bridge over Gravelly Run, a tributary of Hatcher’s Run. Discerning Confederate infantry “posted behind some defenses on the north bank” of Gravelly Run, Chamberlain developed a plan of attack. Griffin ordered Col. Edgar Gregory and his 2nd Brigade and Bartlett and his 3rd Brigade to support the attack.
Chamberlain’s skirmishers “dashed through the stream” upriver from the bridge and attacked the Confederate earthworks. “The entire brigade forded the stream and rolled forward” over the enemy defenses,” Chamberlain recalled.
His men drove the defenders “onward like a wave” north for about a mile, where “the fight became sharp” around farm buildings. Then, at “the edge of a thick wood,” enemy troops “gathered behind a substantial breastwork of logs and earth.”
Intense enemy fire tore holes in the Union lines; Federals withdrew “slowly, bearing their wounded with them, and even some of their dead,” Chamberlain said. A Confederate counterattack resulted “in eddying whirls” of hand-to-hand combat, a Union counter-thrust, and a Southern withdrawal into the earthworks, which protected the approaches to the main Confederate line at the Boydton Plank Road-White Oak Road intersection.
Meanwhile, “now past noon,“ the 20th Maine boys listened to the “heavy firing … on our right, both musketry and artillery. It was but a short distance from us,” Gerrish recalled.
“For an hour we listened with much anxiety, and then the order came for us to advance,” he said.
Confederate skirmishers fired repeatedly while retreating before the 20th Maine, which soon struck “the enemy’s line of battle,” Gerrish realized. “There was a sheet of flame in our front. Whiz, crash, bang, went a dozen [artillery] shells above our heads.”
Lacking orders to attack the Confederate earthworks, the 20th Maine boys fell back.
Griffin indicated to Chamberlain his desire to see the enemy earthworks taken. Chamberlain “anxiously formed a new line for the assault” by placing the 198th Pennsylvania east of the Quaker Road and the 185th New York to its west. On his horse Charlemagne, Chamberlain rode with six companies in “a straight dash up the Quaker Road” toward “a heap of sawdust where a portable mill had stood.” The sawdust pile was “the center of the enemy’s strong advanced line.”
The excited Charlemagne outran the Union troops; Chamberlain “gave him a vigorous check on the curb,” the horse reared “head-high to the level of my face,” and a bullet punched through “the big muscle” of the animal’s neck.
“A heavy blow struck me on the left breast just below the heart,” Chamberlain recalled. The bullet deflected off a leather field-order case “and a brass-mounted hand-mirror in my breast-pocket,” then “followed around two ribs … to come out the back seam of my count.”
The briefly unconscious Chamberlain “fell forward [into the blood] on my horse’s neck.”
Griffin rode up, placed an arm around the waist of the gore-covered, apparently mortally wounded Chamberlain to steady him, and said, “My dear general, you are gone.”
Chamberlain was not, but the 198th Pennsylvania could be. Stiff enemy resistance had sent the new regiment reeling. Chamberlain “rose in the saddle tattered and battered, bare-headed and blood-smeared,” then pushed his horse among the Pennsylvanians.
“The men might well have thought me a messenger from the other world,” he admitted.
Chamberlain and Sickel — who soon suffered “a shattered arm” — rallied the Pennsylvanians. The battle hung in the balance, after capturing some Confederate infantrymen trying to capture him, the blood-covered Chamberlain found the 185th New York pushed back on the left flank.
Now mounted “on the back of a strange, dull-looking white horse, that had been bespattered by the trodden earth,” Chamberlain rode to join Sniper in rallying the New Yorkers. Griffin ordered up an artillery battery, the gunners pounded the Confederates, Griffin and Bartlett fed in reinforcements who rolled the Confederates back to their main entrenchments along the White Oak Road, and that was that.
Capturing the enemy’s outer defenses during the Battle of Quaker Road (also known as the Battle of Lewis’s Farm) cost the Confederacy 381 men and the Union 371 men.
Rain started falling after dark. “Having done all possible, our much-enduring men lay down under the rain …. to sleep, to dream,” said Chamberlain.
“All night the dismal rain swept down the darkness … soaking the fields and roads, and drenching the men stretched on the ground,” he said. The rain made the roads impassable for wheeled vehicles.
About 2 a.m., Gerrish and his comrades “spread our blankets upon the driest spots we could find, and lay down to sleep. The rain was now pouring down in torrents.”
In three days they would start on the road to Appomattox.
Next week: Appomattox Road — success and failure at White Oak Road
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.