6th Regiment of Maryland Infantry
April 2, 2005
I'm writing this at 4:00AM on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia on April 2nd of 2005. Exactly one hundred forty years ago today, at this time on the morning of April 2 nd of 1865, my great grandfather was lying near here in the red Virginia mud. At that time he was a 22-year-old Union infantry sergeant that had been ordered out in the middle of the night in preparation for an attack on the Confederate entrenchments here at Petersburg.
My great grandfather and his men had moved out in total silence just before midnight, they had been lying there for hours. It was a cold and foggy morning and the ground was wet and muddy from recent rains. The men were cold, wet and shivering, but they had their rifles ready, and they were waiting in the mud for the order to start the attack.
At some time in the night Confederate pickets heard a noise and started firing into the darkness. Union soldiers were killed and wounded while lying in wait, unable to fire back or cry out in pain, men had to be muffled by their comrades for fear of giving away the attack.
My great grandfather's unit, the Sixth Regiment Maryland Volunteer Infantry, was in the front line for this assault. He was just one of the 14,000 men of the Union Sixth Corps that were waiting for the sound of the single cannon that would signal the start of that assault. All the men knew this could be the final chapter to the bloody four-year struggle between the North and the South, and they also knew that some of them would die this morning.
The Sixth Regiment Maryland Volunteer Infantry was now down to about three hundred men. This was all that was left of a unit that had proudly marched out of Baltimore three years earlier with over one thousand new soldiers. The Civil War battlefields of Virginia along with the rampant disease and sickness of the time had steadily taken their deadly tolls on the men of the regiment and had brought it down to its present size.
Since General Grant had taken command of the Army the previous spring, these men had fought in a continuous string of battles that started at The Wilderness and now was nearing its end at Petersburg. They had fought at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and in the Shenandoah Valley. My great grandfather had been wounded at Winchester in the Shenandoah and had just spent five months in the hospital recovering from a hip wound. These were tough men, experienced soldiers, prepared for a bloody battle that might just end the war.
I left Roanoke at 12:30AM this morning and passed through Appomattox and saw the green highway signs for Burkeville, Charlotte Court House, and Farmville on the way to Petersburg. These are all places my great grandfather and the Union infantry of the Army of the Potomac would know in the days following their assault on Petersburg. I traveled the 165 miles in a few hours of comfort, not the 5 or 6 days of hard marching through the red mud it would have taken my great grandfather. Arriving at Petersburg, I recognize the trees in the skyline, the same tall slender pines as in those long ago photos of the war. This is the same night sky he saw, only without the deadly scream and trails of fire left by dueling artillery. It's also a night without the sounds of opposing riflemen firing at the real and imagined approaches of enemy infantrymen in the dark.
At 5:00AM we meet at Pamplin Park, a privately owned Civil War historical park that's on the actual ground of the Sixth Corps attack of April 2 nd of 1865. It's very special to be here this morning, to be on the same battlefield where my great grandfather fought exactly 140 years ago today. It's a small way for me to honor his memory and the memory of all the soldiers, both Union and Confederate, that fought and died here that day.
There are over 100 people that have braved the threat of rain to make this walk. Our group's guide is Andy, who turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the events of this day. With a little help from him I was able to identify where the Sixth Maryland broke through that morning 140 years ago. The weather is kind to us, it's 20 degrees warmer and we have much less fog than the soldiers did that morning.
We walk on man made trails through the area, through breaks in the Confederate earthworks, on new bridges laid over the small streams and marshes that had lain in wait for the attacking soldiers. This was Confederate General A. P. Hill's area to defend and included the small stream called Hatcher's Run.
The Confederates were down to 2,800 men in this area, and they were spread out in thin ranks along the lines. The Army of the Potomac's Sixth Corps had 14,000 men that were ready to take advantage of any weak point the Confederates might have that morning. This was the last stand of the Army of Northern Virginia in its efforts to defend Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond that lay just north of it.
This is the area of my great grandfather's assault. The Union lines of Generals Seymour are nearby where the Sixth Maryland started its attack that followed alongside Hatcher's Run. We walk through points where enfilading fire from Confederate riflemen and artillerymen had torn through the Union ranks leaving the killed and maimed in its wake. We stood where gray clad soldiers watched an approaching sea of blue clad soldiers running into their gunfire, many dropping to the ground dead. Where men climbed over the earthworks eager to be the first one in, only to be the first one killed. Where frenzied men tried to kill other frenzied men in close hand-to-hand combat.
The Confederate works are much less imposing now than they were that day. The natural erosion from weather and time has reduced the earthen barriers to something like a third, or less, of the mass of earth and wood that faced those men. Walking through the newly grown forest and finding the mounded trail of dirt of what's left of the Confederate earthworks is much like coming upon the corpse of a long dead giant snake. A seemingly endless snake that had wound itself through the trees and under the leaves, spiraling and undulating along for what seems like miles, now lying there motionless and silent in the forest.
The wooden walls of the earthworks where Confederate infantrymen had stood and fired their rifled muskets are gone, There are no batteries of cannons waiting to belch the fire and smoke of their deadly loads from protected positions. The tangled, woven mass of wooden obstructions and sharply pointed tree limbs angling from the ground that awaited the attacking Union soldiers are gone. The 6 foot wide and 8 foot deep pits in front of the Confederate works are mostly filled in now. What was a barren desert-like landscape between the opposing forces, a virtual no-man's-land stripped of trees and brush by the soldiers of both sides is now filled with tall slender pine and a layer of grass. Still, I wouldn't want to go up against that eroded earth works of today if it was filled with the men and artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia like it was that cold and foggy morning of April 2 nd of 1865.
One hundred and forty years later we can only imagine that day. The Union forces won a major victory, capturing thousands of Confederates in the process. This victory forced the Army of Northern Virginia into a massive retreat to the west that led to its eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House a week later. It was a day where General Grant and President Lincoln could see a fast approaching victorious end to the war for the Union forces. While at the same time General Lee and President Davis could also see a fast approaching end to the war, but with the Confederacy going down in defeat. It was a day that was rejoiced by the victorious Union soldiers of the 6 th Corps and the people in the North, and a day when they cried in the South. It was a day that every man that was there would remember as a very special day in his life, the day they broke through at Petersburg. A day that caused such a stunning change of events that President Abraham Lincoln would safely walk the streets of the South's capital city, Richmond, just a few days later.
But it was a day that would be overshadowed by the events of the next few weeks. The first was General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, a joyous event that was soon followed by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater. The first event brought jubilation in the North; the second drove it into shock and dismay, draped it in the mourning crepe of black and set its flags at half-mast. As the mourning nation watched, a slow funeral procession carried the fallen president's body back by railroad to his burial in Springfield, Illinois. Because of those historic events the country soon forgot the day of the breakthrough at Petersburg. It would now be relegated to its place in the history of the United States of America's recent Civil War, the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1865.
Great Grandson of
Sgt. John L. Jones
Company I, 6th Regiment Maryland Volunteer Infantry
2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 6 th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac
Sgt. Jones also served with:
Company C, 7th Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry
Battery B (Gibbon's), 4th U. S. Light Artillery
Company H, 6th Regiment Maryland Volunteer Infantry
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