After the Reserves: In the Trenches Again with a Few Exceptions (September 23, 1864 – March 25, 1865)


Except for a few pages in Samuel Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, there is no published regimental history for these two units.’ As a follower of the Pennsylvania Reserves, I felt this omission in their continuing history should be corrected.  Because of their origin, and since the two regiments fought side by side throughout their existence, I include both units in only one history. In fact, after the fighting at the Weldon Railroad in August 1864, the remaining members of the two regiments fought as one unit.

Using Bates’ short history as a guide, my unofficial history is simply a compilation of bits and pieces of information about the two units taken from other regimental histories, books written about the battles in which they were involved, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. Unfortunately, at times, I had to rely heavily on only one or two sources to describe an event.

Generals get all the fame and glory but its the privates carrying the rifle who do the work. I’ve included the names of the lower ranks and their circumstances as much as possible but this information also has to be termed unofficial as it was gathered from the same sources as the history information. I can only hope I have made no errors in either case.

Chapter 3 – In the Trenches Again with a Few Exceptions (September 23, 1864 – March 25, 1865)

September 23 – While the Army of the Potomac prepared for a fall campaign, a letter home from Pvt. Nelson Robbins (12th Pa. Res., Co. C, 190th Pa., Co. E) described conditions around the camp of the 190th & 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. “Here I am in this land of desolation and ruin – for what else can I call it? There are neither houses nor trees to be seen for miles around – nothing but forts, rifle pits and the camps. Drills, reviews, and parades are frequent now that the army is resting…”

The Siege of Petersburg – The 5th and 9th Army Corps in possession of the Weldon Railroad – View of the Forts just completed to protect the position. Sketch by Andrew McCallum; from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

September 30 – General Warren, with two divisions of the V Corps, and General Parke, with two divisions of the IX Corps, were directed by General Meade to make a demonstration to the left flank of the Union line at Petersburg while other units of the Army of the Potomac conducted operations north of the James River. The 3rd Division of the V Corps remained behind to man the defenses near Fort Wadsworth. General Crawford (the Reserves former commander) was given command of all the troops from Fort Davis on the Jerusalem Plank Road to Fort Wadsworth on the Weldon Railroad.

The V Corps moved around 9 a.m., General Griffin’s 1st Division led, followed by General Ayres’ 2nd Division (the 190th/191st are now in his 3rd Brigade under Grimshaw).  The men of the 1° Division knew there was a promise of action this morning as General Griffin personally led this advance. He could always smell a fight and now, he was up front with eyes alert and his heavy mustache bristling.

The troops marched south from Ft. Wadsworth on the Halifax Road and then westward about two miles through alternating patches of cleared farmland and heavy forests along Poplar Spring Road, heading for Peebles’ Farm. Passing Poplar Spring Church, some of the men may have noted that it resembled the Dunker Church on Antietam Battlefield, very simple but adequate for its members’ beliefs.

Arriving in the area of Peebles’ Farm, Griffin’s men encountered an entrenched Confederate line. These enemy fortifications protected a portion of the Boydton Plank Road which was used by Confederate supply wagons since the disruption of the Weldon Railroad on August 19.

While Griffin adjusted his lines, Ayres’ men moved to the Vaughn Road to protect Griffin’s right flank. As soon as Ayres cleared Poplar Spring Road, the IX Corps moved to Griffin’s left flank and formed their lines.

"Grant's Movement South of the James-Battle of Poplar Spring Church-Gallant Charge of a Part of the Fifth Corps on the Confederate Fort, September 30th, 1864." From Frank Leslie's Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War
“Grant’s Movement South of the James-Battle of Poplar Spring Church-Gallant Charge of a Part of the Fifth Corps on the Confederate Fort, September 30th, 1864.” From Frank Leslie’s Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War

While Griffin and the IX Corps attacked and pushed the Confederates back, capturing a redoubt (Ft. Archer), a line of rifle pits, one gun and about 100 Confederate troops, and then repelled a Confederate counterattack, Ayres division moved north and west a short distance to the area of the Chappell Farm. Otis’ brigade stretched west to east across an open field on the farm to Squirrel Level Road; Grimshaw’s brigade continued this line east of the road in the field and then bent southward to where it joined the left flank of Graham’s brigade which anchored its right flank on a branch of Arthur’s Swamp.

When the fighting ended for the day, Ayres’ division still protected the Union right flank. Crawford’s troops were ordered to extend westward from the Flowers’ house on the Vaughn Road near the Weldon Railroad to join Ayres’ right flank so there would be no gaps in the Union line allowing a repeat of the surprise attack of August 19.

Trenched lines were ordered and all of this digging was done in the rain and resulting mud with little food or rest.

Meanwhile, the Confederates were just as busy. Gen. A. P. Hill was planning a two pronged attack; Wilcox’s division to advance down Church Road against the Union IX Corps and Griffin’s division of the V Corps while Heth’s division moved down the Squirrel Level Road against Ayres’ division.

Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill
Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill

October 1 (Saturday) – Shortly after daylight, in a heavy rain storm, the Confederates attacked with Heth’s division moving south along Squirrel Level Road. His skirmishers met and drove in Ayres’ pickets who were posted in a line north of the Chappell house. Otis’ and Grimshaw’s men sounded the alarm when they reached the safety of their fortified lines.

Because of the adequate V Corps entrenchments, Heth’s division had no success although the Confederates probed different areas of the Union line. They finally withdrew northward with the realization the Union troops were here to stay, extending the siege line further west.

Correspondent L. A. Hendrick of the New York Herald reported from V Corps Headquarters, “This morning the enemy made two charges upon General Ayres’ line, but was handsomely repulsed each time.”

Between rain showers, General Meade inspected the area captured yesterday, still hoping to make further progress towards the Southside Railroad.

October 2 (Sunday) – How far had Hill’s Confederates withdrawn? General Meade wanted to know so Generals Parke and Warren ordered skirmishers to advance from their respective corps.

In Ayres’ division, the Combined Regiment (157th, 190th, 191st) supported by the 4th Delaware, advanced northward from the Chappell farm. As they cleared a wooded area they received artillery and rifle fire from a Confederate line.

“The design was merely to drive in his (Confederate) pickets, and compel him to show his strength. As soon as the command ‘forward’ was given, away they (3rd Brigade) went with a yell, sweeping the rebel pickets before them, and on into the works beyond, before the enemy knew what was the matter or could recover from his astonishment. An attempt was made to recall them as they went rushing on toward the rebel works; but signals and bugle calls were unheeded.”

Unselfishness on the battlefield is an often overlooked and undecorated form of heroism.

The Southerners retreated northward to a stronger line on the W. W. Davis farm.

Unsuccessful probes by both sides on the respective lines made each side content to hold its line and exchange sporadic fire. This standoff continued until mid-afternoon when Ayres ordered his advanced line to return to the Chappell farm line.

The “handsomely repulsed” attacks of October 1 and the scouting and probing expeditions of October 2 cost the 190th/191st seven casualties; two killed, three wounded and two missing. One of the dead was Pvt. William C. Overdorf (11 Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa., Co. C), shot in the head while he tried to help his company commander, Capt. Neri B. Kinsey (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. C, 190th Pa., Co. C) who was wounded by artillery fire near the Chappell house. Unselfishness on the battlefield is an often overlooked and undecorated form of heroism.

Adjutant Ernest Wright, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles. Courtesy of Ronn Palm's Museum of Civil War Images.
Adjutant Ernest Wright, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles. Courtesy of Ronn Palm’s Museum of Civil War Images.

One of the wounded was Adj. Ernest Wright (13th Pa. Res, 190th Pa.) who was struck on the head by a musket ball. He fell to the ground and was thought to be dead. However, he soon rose shakily to his feet and in his state of confusion and heavy German accent explained, “Py god, I votes for Lincoln!”

With the Confederates returning to their strongly entrenched line along the Boydton Plank Road, the Union troops had to be satisfied with their newly captured ground. For the next four weeks, they resumed the lifestyle of trench warfare around Petersburg.

October 10 – The 3rd Brigade was given some relief from the trenches by pulling back to Yellow House on the Weldon Railroad where they established a camp.

October 27 – The II, V and IX Corps received orders from General Meade to move against a reported weak area in the right flank of the Confederate line which roughly followed the Boydton Plank Road to protect the wagon supply route. The Confederate supplies were off-loaded from the trains at Stony Creek Station on the Weldon Railroad and put on wagons to finish the trip to Petersburg by road, bypassing the section of the railroad cut by the V Corps in August. The route was Flat Foot Road northwestward to Dinwiddie Court House and then the Boydton Plank Road past the western flank of the Union lines to Petersburg.

The IX Corps, supported by the V Corps, was to attack the Confederate line on the north side of Hatcher’s Run. Meanwhile, the II Corps was to march around the right flank of the Confederate line along the south side of Hatcher’s Run and advance on the Southside Railroad via Boydton Plank Road and White Oak Road, thus cutting the last two supply lines for the Confederates in Petersburg and Richmond.

The V Corps marched southward from the Fort Wadsworth area about 4 a.m., each man carrying at least 60 rounds of ammunition and four days rations. Problems plagued the troops from the start. It was a very dark, rainy night so they had trouble following the narrow roads through the heavy woods. General confusion reigned until about 5:30 a.m. when the night faded into morning.

The IX Corps, experiencing the same problems, finally located and attacked the Confederate right flank. Immediately, it became apparent that the Confederate line was stronger than reported so the attack of the IX Corps halted and the men formed defensive positions.

General Parke advised General Warren that his attack stalled. The new plan called for the IX Corps to hold its position and demonstrate against the Confederate line while the V and II Corps pivoted around the left flank of the IX Corps and tried to flank the Confederate line.

Major General John G. Parke, seen here with Generals Meade (left) and Humphreys in 1865.
Major General John G. Parke, seen here with Generals Meade (left) and Humphreys in 1865.

General Warren positioned General Griffin’s 1st Division, supported by two brigades from General Ayres’ 2nd Division, on the right side (north) of Hatcher’s Run to go in on the left flank of the IX Corps. He directed General Crawford to take his 3rd Division and General Ayres’ remaining brigade, cross Hatcher’s Run near Armstrong’s Mill and proceed up the left side (south) of Hatcher’s Run. Crawford’s left flank was to ultimately link with Hancock’s right flank.

About 9 a.m., Griffin’s men met the Confederate skirmish line and pushed them back. Crawford started his men across the run about 11:45 a.m. and got into position by 12:30 p.m. He directed his right flank to hold onto the run as they advanced westward.

Crawford had trouble from the beginning; Hatcher’s Run was very crooked, the woods were very dense, his men could not hold their lines and they followed a branch instead of the main stream. All of this confusion caused delays. Finally, General Griffin’s men were told to fire their rifles to give Crawford’s men sound to guide them into position.

Major General Samuel W. Crawford, Fifth Army Corps.

The 3rd Division finally located a Confederate skirmish line and pushed it back until their line was abreast of Griffin’s line. Crawford received orders from General Warren to halt at this point. The link up with Hancock had yet to be made.

Unknown to Crawford’s troops, and especially to General Hancock’s II Corps, a strong Confederate force under Gen. William Mahone moved around Crawford and, although they had just as much trouble in the dense woods as the Union troops, were in a position to attack Hancock’s right flank.

The II Corps and Gregg’s cavalry support by this time were astride the Boydton Plank Road and advancing on White Oak Road. Hancock was still operating according to Plan A.

Hancock was being attacked from several directions and for a while it was touch and go. Near dark, however, the Confederates were forced back by the determined and stubborn Union infantry and cavalry.

Early in the fighting, when the results were still in doubt, General Hancock asked a surprised General Warren for support. Warren was unaware of the fighting to his left flank due to the dense woods muffling the rifle fire. General Ayres’ two brigades which supported General Griffin were sent to the aid of General Hancock but these 2nd Division troops only proceeded as far as Armstrong’s Mill before darkness forced them to halt for the night.

General Hancock was then advised that Ayres’ and Crawford’s troops would come to his aid and support in the morning. General Hancock, knowing his troops were low on ammunition but not knowing the exact time of the V Corps troops arrival or the strength of the Confederate troops opposing him, decided to pull back during the night.

October 28 – The various V Corps units held their position during the night and a heavy rain storm. In the morning, Crawford’s troops pulled back to Armstrong’s Mill and crossed Hatcher’s Run to rejoin the V Corps.

The three corps then pulled back to the Union lines. Not much had been accomplished except to determine the Confederates had a strong position on their right flank.

Fortunately for the 190th and 191st, no casualties were reported and it was life as normal in the trenches through November and into December.

(author’s note: A piece of correspondence, however, mentioned sending 242 men of the 191st Regiment to Harper’s Ferry to guard a section of the B & O Railroad during November 1864.)

December 7 – General Lee was still receiving supplies via the Weldon Railroad.  General Warren, under orders from General Meade to destroy more of the railroad, started his V Corps marching at 6 a.m. His troops marched about 18 miles in the rain, following the Jerusalem Plank Road southeastward to Hawkinsville, then turning south towards Sussex Court House.

Near dark and after crossing the Nottaway River at Freeman’s Ford on a pontoon bridge, the Combined Regiment stopped in a cornfield near this location. They had not received orders to make camp but the men were tired and soon asleep. Between 10 and 11 p.m., orders were finally received to make camp and be ready to resume the march about 2 a.m.

Lt. William R. Peacock (41-D, 190-E), showing a debatable sense of humor, woke up the men to tell them they could sleep until 2 a.m.

From one irate, formerly sleeping soldier, he received this tirade, “Well, what the hell did you wake us up for, to tell us that?” Lieutenant Peacock replied, “Why you lunatic, aren’t two sleeps better than one?”

December 8 – At 2 a.m., the march began again. After Ayres’ trailing 2nd Division crossed the Nottaway River about 4:30 a.m., the pontoon bridge was taken up behind them.

During the day’s march, the Combined Regiment passed through Sussex Court House and Coman’s Well before striking the Halifax Road and the railroad near Northcross House.

The rest of the V Corps struck the Weldon Railroad at different locations between Stony Creek Station and Jarratt’s Station.

The weather did not help the men as they began to destroy the railroad; it was cold with periods of snow, sleet and rain. “The work of destruction began toward evening, and continued during most of the night. Those who witnessed the night work, lighted up by bonfires of the ties, will not soon forget the stirring scene as the men whirled the rails and attached ties over from the road-bed with shout and ringing cheer, and then wretched the rails apart and ties from the rails, and built great fires of ties, on which the rails were heated and ruined for future use.”

Unfortunately, during the destruction process, Pvt. Ellis Gross (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. H, 190th Pa., Co. H) was killed by a falling pile of rail.

December 9 – About 16 miles of track were destroyed by the Union troops as the weather continued to be very cold. Even the fires from the burning railroad ties could not keep the men warm.

December 10 – A heavy Confederate position further south along the railroad at the Meherrin River ( the towns of Belfield and Hicksford which straddled the Meherrin River at this point are known today as Emporia) forced the V Corps to halt their destruction. Not having the supplies or troops for a heavy engagement with the enemy, Warren started his command northbound towards Petersburg following the same general route.

On this return trip, the V Corps found some of their stragglers of the southbound march butchered by Confederate sympathizers. Pvt. Michael Coleman (11th Pa. Res., Co. E, 190th Pa., Co. C) witnessed one of the bodies and it did not sit well with him. Houses and barns along the route of march were searched, any evidence of these murders resulted in the immediate destruction of the property and the seizure of all occupants. This raid was also known as “The Applejack Raid” because of the amount of this beverage located, confiscated, and mostly destroyed by the troops consuming it.

December 11-12 – The march continued in more cold weather. The troops reached their camp about 3 p.m., on the twelfth, marching about 100 miles in six days.

This destruction to the Weldon Railroad hurt the Confederate supply route but it was operable again by March 1865. However, it was no longer an effective supply route due to the change in the tactical situation near Wilmington, North Carolina (captured February 22, 1865), and the soon to be changing situation in Petersburg.

January 1, 1865 – Holidays were not always a time of celebration in the army. Pvt. John Gibson (11th Pa. Res., Co. B, 190th Pa., Co. A) described his day, “The New Year is not observed much by privates but officers all on a drunk. Our dinner consisted of hard tack and salt horse.”

February 5 (Rowanty Creek) – General Grant told General Meade, “I would like to take advantage of the present good weather to destroy or capture as much as possible of the enemy’s wagon train, which it is understood is being used in connection with the Weldon Railroad to partially supply the troops about Petersburg.”

At 7 a.m., as General Warren moved the V Corps out of their camp on a bright, crisp, and frosty morning, the men were in excellent spirits. “General Warren was mounted on his old gray horse. This we regarded as a sure sign that a fight was on the program.”

Perhaps today would be the day they turned General Lee’s right flank and this stalemate at Petersburg would be ended.

Leaving behind their winter quarters and a 1400 man detail for picket line duty and camp security, Ayres 2nd Division led, followed by Griffin’s 1st Division, the artillery and Crawford’s 3rd Division. Each of the marching troops carried four days rations and 50 rounds of ammunition. The old Bucktails may have carried more than 50 rounds, in their previous regiment they had orders to carry 100 rounds.

The V Corps’ route of march was the Halifax Road to Rowanty Post Office, direct by road to W. Perkin’s house at the Monk’s Neck Crossing of Rowanty Creek, then proceeding via Stage Road and Vaughn Road to J. Hargraves house at the crossing of Hatcher’s Run near Dinwiddie Court House. Once here, they were to support General Gregg’s cavalry unit who had the mission of capturing and destroying any Confederate wagon trains coming from Stony Creek Station.

General Ayres’ lead units, arriving at Monk’s Neck Crossing about 10 a.m., discovered a dismounted Confederate cavalry unit guarding the crossing and preventing Gregg’s cavalry from using it.

The Combined Regiment from the 3rd Brigade, now commanded by Brev. Brig. Gen. James Gwyn, was given the assignment to clear and secure the crossing. As the troops moved out, one of the men made the comment, “Now, boys, the woo-hawin’ is a-goin’ to begin.”

Under a covering fire, some of these troops moved to the ice covered stream. One of the first troops onto the ice fell through, being almost totally submerged. He was rescued but it was realized the ice would not hold the weight of the men.

Axes were secured and trees along the bank were felled across the stream, possibly by some of the former lumberjacks from the Wildcat Region of north central Pennsylvania where many companies of the Pennsylvania Reserves originated in 1861.

Under covering fire, troops ran across the makeshift bridges to form a position on the Confederates’ side of the stream. They now provided the covering fire as more of their comrades crossed to their side. As soon as enough Union troops crossed the stream, they charged the Confederate position, driving the enemy back. About 11 a.m., the crossing was secured and about 30 of the enemy captured.

The Combined Regiment moved about ½ mile away from the crossing and formed a picket line to secure the area for the two hours it took to build a proper bridge for the horses and wagons.

During this time, a cold and possibly wet private moved up to a fire to warm himself.  An unnamed colonel ordered him away from his fire and this caused a ruckus. “That man’s relatives near and remote, male and female, were brought into requisition to define the exquisite meanness of his nature and origin.” Adjutant Wright had his hands full trying to quiet the troops.

Upon the completion of the bridge, the V Corps crossed and moved towards its assigned position, encountering very little enemy resistance. All the resistance was encountered by the II Corps which protected the right flank of the V Corps.

This attack on the II Corps by the Confederates was to such an extent that General Meade became concerned for the safety of Gregg’s cavalry and Warren’s V Corps. About 9:30 p.m., he ordered both units to pull back along the Vaughn Road to the area of the crossing of Hatcher’s Run.

During a bitter cold night and with little rest, the troops pulled back. The 2nd Division went into their new position near the intersection of the Vaughn Road and Quaker Road.

Not much was accomplished, Gregg’s cavalry only found and captured 18 wagons and about 50 prisoners.

February 6 (Hatcher’s Run) – In the morning, the 3rd Brigade moved over the frozen roads to relieve the 1S Brigade in their defensive position. More than one marching soldier probably thought about the warm winter quarters they left yesterday.

After a relatively quiet morning, about 1 p.m., General Warren ordered Crawford’s division to march out the Vaughn Road and turn westward towards Dabney’s Mill. The 2nd Division’s 2nd and 3rd Brigades would follow in support.

Crawford’s men encountered light Confederate resistance from Gen. John Pegram’s division which steadily and slowly retreated before the advancing Union troops. However, when the enemy reached the mill, they received reinforcements.

Crawford was now the one being slowly forced back. Ayres two brigades went into line on his left flank but the Union situation was foreboding. The men were low on ammunition and unsure of the Confederate strength due to the dense woods beyond the mill.  Memories of the Weldon Railroad began playing on their minds. “A quantity of our cavalry,

riding rapidly, came on to my ranks suddenly,” just as more fresh Confederate troops appeared and counterattacked caused the uneasy Union troops to break, running back through some VI Corps troops coming to their support.

Near evening, a Union line was established east of Dabney’s Mill by the VI Corps support troops who were joined by the breaking troops after they settled down and realized they were not surrounded.

In the bitter cold and rain, they tried to dig defensive positions in the frozen ground which added to their despair.

February 7 – By mid-morning, General Warren reorganized his V Corps and ordered General Crawford to advance towards Dabney’s Mill.

During a violent hail storm, these troops of the 3rd Division pushed the Confederates back to the mill and by 6 p.m., most of the ground lost yesterday was retaken. Crawford’s men also buried the dead of both sides from the past two days of fighting.

They were fortunate; the 190th Regiment lost five men to wounds, including Sgt. Richard E. Looker (1st Pa. Rifles, Co. G, 190th Pa., Co. G), and the 191st Regiment had four men wounded.

Frederick Gossner
Private Frederick Gossner, Company C of the 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers; died of his wounds received during the fighting on February 7. Gossner was originally from Company H, of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves.

Unfortunately, Cpl. Harrison Whitehill (10th Pa. Res., Co. E, 191th Pa., Co. I) and Pvt. Frederick Gossner (5th Pa. Res., Co. H, 191st Pa., Co. C) died of their wounds.

For the rest of February and most of March, the V Corps manned the newly won ground along Arthur’s Creek above the junction with Hatcher’s Run. The men built more winter quarters and more defensive positions while standing picket and guard duty. There was also an occasional review for some high ranking officer or dignitary.

On March 7, 1865, General Order #10, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, awarded the 190th and 191st Regiments campaign ribbons for Petersburg, the Weldon Railroad, Chappell House and Hatcher’s Run.

However, the report of the adjutant-general of their own state gave the two regiments no credit for active service subsequent to the battle of the Weldon Railroad on August 19, 1864.29 Credit or not from their home state, members of the unit continued to be wounded and killed.

March 25 – About 4 a.m., Confederate troops under Gen. John B. Gordon attacked a section of the Union siege line manned by the IX Corps. Before General Parke’s troops knew what happened, the Confederates captured Fort Stedman and several artillery batteries.

By 7 a.m., Crawford’s 3rd Division, followed by Ayres 2nd Division, were on the march to support the IX Corps. The 2nd Division reached Fort Dushane on the Halifax Road where they halted and were held in reserve.

By 8 a.m., the Confederate attack was repulsed by some fast moving Pennsylvania regiments under Gen. John Hartranft and the failure of General Gordon’s support troops to arrive on his line of attack. The dead and wounded needed care and the damage to the Union lines had to be repaired.

The Combined Regiment remained on standby status the rest of today and tomorrow.

When the orders “Fall in” and “March” were given to the regiment this morning, two of its members, Pvts. McBride and William Lewis (190th Pa., Co. C), were absent from the camp area.  As they tried to catch their regiment, they were overtaken by President Lincoln, General Grant and accompanying escort.

Private McBride explained, “We concluded to greet them with due ceremony. As we met them, we halted on the bank by the road and presented arms.” The President raised his hat in acknowledgment.  When in doubt, do what you think is right.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.