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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

At Petersburg, Weapons of Choice; the Mortar and the Sharpshooter

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

by Gordon Thorsby


The 13" Mortar "Dictator at Petersburg (LOC)


In the middle of June,1864, Union soldiers were were living in the deadly, stinking trenches of Petersburg and eager to end their three-year enlistments. For Corporal O.W. Damon of Battery D, 5th U. S. Artillery, he had no doubts. He had done enough, and the end of August wasn't coming soon enough if he survived that long. Between the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and what Petersburg was becoming, he figured it was time to let someone else do some fighting. The Second Petersburg offensive was completed on June 18th on the right and Butler’s Army had been repulsed with heavy loss. Here are a few entries made in Damon's diary that might convey some of his thoughts.


"June19. Sunday. Harnessed at 3 A.M. Considerable picket firing. Lieut. Rittenhouse. wounded in [the] side, while sitting in his bed behind the breast works at Petersburg by rebel picket. He was taken to the rear on a stretcher. Pretty quiet during the day. Our loss was one man wounded through the fingers."

Lt. Benjamin F. Rittenhouse (right) was reported as being wounded in the back according to records. He had been the battery’s commander since July 2nd at Little Round Top at Gettysburg.


June .20. Monday. Very foggy. All quiet. As soon as fog cleared off pickets opened briskly. Continued very brisk all day. About 9 A.M. Corp’l [illegible erased] sat on the trail of piece. + a rebel picket fired through the aperture in breast works to + struck him in the wrist. He was taken to the hospital.

Counter-battery fire and infantry assaults were no longer the primary cause of losses. Despite built-up breastworks and redoubts, the ever-dangerous sharpshooter was a great worry for gunners and horses. It wasn’t limited to lowly privates or lower grade commissioned officers.


"At 3 P.M. Gen’l Ayres came up to front on foot. In a few moments he went to rear, wounded in right little finger. About 4 P.M. Rebels opened with 20 pounder. We replied. Two horses killed only. Firing ceased at dark. Unharnessed. Pickets firing all night. Threw up higher Earth works."


The works built-up in the first two weeks of Petersburg needed to be higher and nighttime was the only time to strengthen them without becoming a certain casualty. Romeyn B Ayres

(seen right) had a background in artillery and was a brigade commander in the V Corps when he was severely wounded during the siege of Petersburg in June,1864, and the wound forced him to take a leave of absence from the field and returned in August. Sharpshooting had become a daily occurrence and when it was quiet, O.W. was quick to record the action in his diary.


Then, there were the mortars. By day and night, picket and sharpshooting interrupted sleep or picked off men and horses. For the artillery gunners both were bad.


"Changed the horses. Very warm. Heavy Cannonading on the right. Mortar fired occasional shots all night. Pickets continually firing."


Worn out horses were changed for fresh and well-fed animals. The 10 pound Parrott Rifles that Battery D still had. Pickets began their occasional staccato firing at unpredictable times in the darkness. It went on all night and then the mortars started with earth shaking eruptions were generated by the 13”mortars from the Union side and answered with 8” Coehorns from closer trenches from the Confederate side.


A South Carolina Colonel wrote, “The Sharpshooters never ceased firing, while the mortar shells rained down upon us incessantly day and night... They are continuously carrying their mangled boddys [sic] off.”


Grant also decided to shell the town of Petersburg to eliminate support that the second largest city in the South might offered. In the morning and later in the evening, the batteries would fire shells into the town. On June 30, the town actually caught fire during the regular shelling of Petersburg.

"June 27. Wednesday. Very warm. Quiet except the Mortar. Batt’y fired a few shots after noon. One man, Private Fenton, wounded in thigh by sharpshooters. Mortars kept up firing at intervals all night. Rebels replied with mortars."


Pvt Fenton (John R., originally part of Battery L. 5th U.S. Artillery). Sharpshooting took another man, the heat was oppressive, the mortars bombarded, and now light and heavy artillery batteries shelled the town.

One Confederate general who knew the Petersburg VA area said it was the hottest he had experienced in 23 years.


"July. 4th. Monday. Fired salute of 13 guns into the City of Petersburg. No reply from Enemy. Parapet covered with flags on both sides. Threw up large earth works for protection of horses. Pickets exchanged papers."


The thirteen-gun salute shelling into the city came from selected batteries and done in the evening. The flag ceremony was documented where the opposing trenches put on the patriotic shows. Bands on both sides competed to drown each other out with “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie.” Nothing else occurred and all remained peaceful as the musical battle from many bands dueled across the lines.


In addition to flags and band music, the Union army distributed a large amount of whiskey to all Union troops. O.W. never commented for fear his parents might read his diary.


O.W. Damon mustered out September 17 and returned home to Chesaning, Michigan.


Note: Were Damon's dates and days off? It appears so.



Sources:


Diary, O.W. Damon, rewritten 1908.


Petersburg Campaign, Greene, A. Wilson .p333. University of North Carolina Press, 2018.


Letter from Col. John Bratton to his wife in South Carolina, University of South Carolina.,



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