Wilkeson at Petersburg
18 July 1864
Near City Point, Virginia
Army of the Potomac
Certain inquiries have been received of late concerning the
conditions here in the intrenchments at Petersburg. It would be no exaggeration,
nor would it betray any military secret to say that there never was such a
perfect carnival of dust, dirt, and when it rains, of mud. To these daily trials
are added almost every kind of vermin abhorrent to man. Following several days
of keeping one’s head down to avoid a bullet from the lines opposite, the
resident of these works acquires a certain indifference to his appearance and he
becomes just another one of thousands of patient sufferers in dust covered faded
blue, which is the fashion when it comes to attire hereabouts.
So you can imagine how welcome was the news, when a portion of the army were relieved of their vigil along the Petersburg lines, and were marched south and west in a great arc in order to make a movement ranking officers often call “feeling the enemy.” The rank-in-file have grown accustomed to be suspicious of such movements as they are the ones who must carry the primary burden. It is they who will suffer the consequences should such a movement be imprudent, as it almost always is. We set out several hours before dawn in the hopes that the enemy would not be alerted to our absence, and well before midday had already crossed the Jerusalem Road, which runs due south out of Petersburg.
We continued our march westward, in the vicinity of the Weldon Railroad. An officer of the 7th Wisconsin kindly explained to me that we might yet dare hope to locate the furthest extension of the Confederate defenses, and so place the army in a position to turn their flank and envelop the whole of their line. As this Virginia two-step has been the theme of virtually the whole of the present campaign, and has yet to bring the hoped for result, many of us maintained a healthy skepticism. Yet the mood of the men as we continued along was almost joyous. For here, further along the flank, were farmhouses and verdant fields, yet unspoiled by the ravages of war. Were we to stop long enough to make a cookfire, there were even fence rails suited to our needs. At more than one point, company officers had to provide stern warnings against any foraging expeditions into barnyards for chickens or hogs.
Late on the afternoon of the 16th we altered our line of march so that it was more nearly due north. It was here apparently that we hoped to turn the Confederate flank. We were destined for disappointment. For as we came up a country lane, there to our front were the Rebels. As they had not had time to intrench, it was speculated that their arrival had preceded ours by the barest of margins. The enemy, with that uncanny prescience of mind so characteristic of the Army of Northern Virginia, had anticipated our movements.
The Wisconsin men promptly arranged themselves in a thick skirmish line, and just as the action was about to commence, there was detected a flag of truce between the lines. It so happened that a certain Captain James Barker of the 4th Regular Artillery had a cousin, Junius Barker, who commanded a company of the Confederate regiment immediately before us. There ensued a pause to permit the two men to greet each other for the first time since the onset of the war. There appeared two parties of men, met between the lines, each bearing a white handkerchief of truce. It was soon apparent who were the two men concerned as they saluted each other smartly and then with little further ceremony moved to each other’s side in a manly embrace. They parted and evidently had words for one another which were warmly received, as I could detect smiles on both faces through my glass, even from such a distance as I was observing the meeting. I soon learned that both men were Marylanders, and graduates of the West Point class of 1858. It is said that the father of James Barker is proprietor of a Baltimore printing house. The gathering made a deep impression on all who observed it as hardly anyone cannot relate some such division within a family or among friends. Here divine providence had decreed that the two men would pursue varying courses in the present national conflict. Little could be done beyond a test of arms to settle the question of who had been in the right. The two men continued to talk and several of the soldiers on both sides took the opportunity to fraternize. It seemed odd that within the hour many of these men might lay dead or dying on this field. Then, just as suddenly as they had met they parted company completely and the two parties made their way back to their own lines. Captain Barker kindly granted me a brief interview as he walked past my position of observation, amidst the very battery of artillery he commanded. It was easy to see in the tortured lines of his face, the intense distress he felt at parting from a dear relative. He struggled to master his emotions as he related to me that when he had seen the battle flag of the 1st Maryland opposite, he knew immediately he had encountered his cousin.
As events proved, we had little time to talk, for a Rebel battery’s guns boomed out their discordant notes and the fight was on. Our own guns were quickly in action in response, and the Captain, now fully alive to the action before us, noted with enthusiasm that our fire had required the Confederates to limber up and move their guns or face certain destruction. Our infantry used the opportunity to advance a line of skirmishers along some open pastureland broken only by a fence line and some woods which occupied the middle of the field. They had little difficulty in driving the Confederates back at first but then the enemy made a stand and forced our line back to nearly their starting point. All the while, our artillery engaged in a bitter contest with the Rebel guns opposite. Our guns, being so ably served, had the Confederate guns continually on the move and eventually silenced them completely. This was just as well, as I observed a determined push by the enemy on our infantry which initially drove in our skirmishers. Our line fell back on the guns and suddenly I did not need my glass to feel a full participant in the action; several balls taking the bark off a tree near where I stood.
Captain Barker coolly called for canister, and at a moment when his guns had a clear field of fire, opened on the enemy advancing across the field, cutting many of them down in a single horrifying moment. An effort by some of the enemy who had cleverly formed on our left, was turned back by our infantry who had deftly shifted their position and with several well directed volleys drove the Rebels off. As if by mutual agreement, both sides moved to recover their wounded. A number of our comrades would have to be left on the field as the Rebels were seen to be heavily reinforcing this portion of the line. These newly arriving troops would no doubt intrench by nightfall and it would be folly to attack them there. And so, we returned whence we had come. The men did get a brief reprieve from the misery of the Petersburg lines when we bivouacked on the night of the 16th amidst a well kept farm. Some Virginia matron undoubtedly lost her chickens to the fortunes of war as we all enjoyed fresh poultry that night around well lit campfires.
As I retired for a few hours of fitful sleep in a field near the country lane we’d marched by that morning, I could not help but wonder which man providence would ultimately favor. My own sympathies for the Union lead me to the conclusion that it will be James. Nevertheless, I was haunted by the knowledge that the Rebels we’d met that day were more than competently led. That other cousin, the one who had made a choice I could not countenance, possessed that rare combination of skill and manly courage which cannot but be praised. And so whatever I may write in the columns of the Tribune, we are left with the bitter cup of national division to drink for a time yet until that higher power arranges it otherwise.
The foregoing dispatch was based on research and observations made along the skirmish lines of Escanaba, Michigan on the Weekend of July 16-18 1999. As always, the skills of the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, in this case Company E, and Battery B, 4th U.S. Light Artillery, make the task of presenting these scenes from our nation’s heritage all the more moving and significant.