The original Confederate fortifications built around Petersburg between 1862 and 1864 were known as the"Dimmocl< Line", after engineer Charles H. Dimmock, and stretched for ten miles around the southern approaches to the city.The 55 artillery batteries were consecutively numbered from east to west, and were linked together with rifle trenches. Following the Federal assaults of June 18-20, 1864 the Confederates withdrew to inner lines and Grant ordered siege lines to be established around the city.The inner Confederate defenses were held until the final Federal breakthrough on April 2, 1865.
Fort Stedman had been abandoned on account of the storm washing away the parapets. I instructed the officer of the day of the Second Division to have the work repaired last evening. I would also recommend that plank be furnished for platforms for the guns in Fort Stedman. It was almost impossible to work the guns during the last storm." Four days later, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, commanding the 2nd Army Corps, reported that "a portion of the gallery on the right of Fort Stedman has caved in, making it impossible to post a sentinel therein as has been the custom. Should it cave in any more, a portion of the parapet on the right of the fort may come down." He requested assistance from the Engineer Corps to repair this work.
Cold weather also hindered work and repairs. In January 1865, Brevet Colonel I. Spaulding, commanding detachment 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, reported: "The severity of the weather during the past week, and the depth to which the ground was frozen, has prevented any considerable progress being made where the digging and dressing of the banks have been principally near the surface."
RIGHT This watercolor by William Sheppard.who originally enlisted in the Richmond Howitzers and reached the rank of engineering officer, is entitled "Newspapers in the Trenches" and depicts a group of Confederate defenders gathered outside a bomb-proof signposted "Spottswood Hotel" in the Petersburg trenches.The actual Spottswood Hotel was one of Richmond's finest hostelries. (The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond,Virginia)
When not assembled in full line of battle, troops in the main Union trenches outside Petersburg were usually deployed "one man to the yard." With a growing shortage of manpower towards the end of 1864, the Confederate trenches were much more thinly populated and stood 10 to 21 feet apart.
On the picket lines
Federal troops usually spent one day at a time in the picket lines, or vidette pits, outside Petersburg, where they observed the enemy and engaged in skirmishing. According to Connecticut army chaplain H. Clay Trumbull: "It was toilsome living or dying in that terrible siege. At points the advanced vidette-pits of the two sides were within a stone's throw of each other, and within short rifle range of the main works ... one must keep under close cover while there. Men on duty there could be relieved only by night, and then as quietly as possible. If a soldier raised head or hand above the low earth bank by day, 'chew' came a bullet past him, or 'chug' came a bullet into him ... Twenty-four hours of unrelieved round of duty in such a place was a long time for any man."
As enemy raids and larger attacks usually took place just before dawn, pickets always manned the rifle loopholes at 4 o'clock in the morning until after daylight. Known as "picket firing," sharpshooters on both sides also concentrated on picking off any troops seen in the enemy lines. Regarding the Union lines from Fort Stedman to Battery No. 11 for the period September 17-November 14, 1864, Major N. Michler, US Engineer Corps, reported that the "present system of sharpshooting along that front" prevented any repair work being done during the day. By the beginning of 1865, the 2nd and 5th Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac had 128 target rifles with telescopic sights in field service. According to Northern artist Alfred Waud, picket firing was discontinued on some portions of the lines. "Genl. [Gouverneur Kemble] Warren considered it unnecessary to the safty jsic] of the 5th Corps front," he stated, "and put a stop to it. The enemy did likewise. But where the practice was in vogue it was very dangerous to be exposed." The type of wounds inflicted in the trenches before Petersburg is illustrated in letters home that reported the high number of head, neck, wrist, and upper torso wounds received.
Published in Harper's Weekly on September 24, 1864, this engraving shows Federal troops manning the trenches during the siege of Peters burg. Two men are shown firing through sandbag loopholes, while others are either playing cards or showing their hats and caps above the parapet to draw enemy fire. (Author's collection)
This sketch by Alfred Waud shows sharpshooters of the 18th Corps engaged in "picket firing." According to the artist, "A common plan of protection was that shown in the sketch, by a wooden tube widening outwards like a miniature embrasure buried in the crest of the rifle pit and protected by sandbags." (Library of Congress USZ62-7053)
Regarding life in the trenches, an Alabama Confederate recalled that the "heat was exessive [sic], there was no protection from the rays of the sun; the trench was so narrow that two men could scarcely pass abreast, and the fire of the enemy was without intermission." To make matters worse, the men were tormented by swarms of flies, lice, ticks, and chiggers, and suffered from the lack of good water near the front. Death sought them out in innumerable ways: from sickness, accident, a sniper's bullet, or the burst of a mortar shell. "This life in the trenches was awful, beyond description," a Confederate officer declared.
The men in the trenches were not only exposed to shot and shell, but had scant protection from the elements. They stretched their shelter tents across the rifle pit, formed by the outer parapet and a second embankment in the rear; or they built "bough houses" made from leafy tree branches stretched over the space. There they cooked and ate, and slept and fought.
The close proximity of the trenches encouraged some men to fraternize with the enemy during lulls in the fighting. Sometimes they would enter the trenches occupied by enemy troops, and exchange news and goods. On February 18, 1865, Private Charles McDowell, 9th New York Heavy Artillery, wrote to his wife Nancy, "We have got pretty well settled down again. I don't know how long we will stay here but I hope till the war is over. I don't think that will be long. They are getting pretty well cornered up and they begin to find it out. Ten come in our lines in front of us last night. We are so close together on picket we can talk with one another. They heft to be pretty sharp about getting away for they are watched pretty well by their picket men ... We are putting up some big forts here. Eighteen hundred men reports to one fort every morning for work."
On Christmas Day, 1864, both sides enjoyed an impromptu and unauthorized truce in the trenches. According to a Georgian, "The men had suspended their work without being so ordered and in a few minutes they were passing in full sight of each other, shouting the compliments of the season, giving invitations to cross over and take a drink, to come to dinner, to come back into the Union ... and other amenities, which were a singular contrast to the asperities of war." Many of the Federal troops enjoyed what a New Hampshire soldier noted in his diary as a "fine Christmas dinner for all." On the Confederate side there was a concerted effort to see that the men at the front got something special this day. A Virginian recorded, "The newspapers urged the movement forward, committees were appointed to collect and forward the goods to the soldiers." In one company the men eagerly waited for the Christmas bounty to arrive. When it did finally show up two weeks late, it consisted of "one drumstick of a turkey, one rib of mutton, one slice of roast beef, two biscuits, and a slice of highbred." It was the thought that mattered and, recalled a young Confederate, "we thanked our benefactors and took courage."
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