In Their Own Words: Letter from the front, Petersburg, Virginia (1864)

Letter from the front, Petersburg, Virginia (1864)

Mr. Editor – I take this opportunity of dropping a few lines to your most worthy paper.

We are now about to march; but this is nothing new to us, for marching orders come nearly as often as shells from the rebels, and they come very often. But I hope the shells will not keep the Paymaster from coming. Our pocket books are getting very flat.

We have lost a great many of our brave boys since we came here…Among the number was Charles Carter, corporal in Company C. He was from Pittsburgh, Pa. He was a brave soldier, and loved by all who knew him. He was killed on 15th of June, while charging the heights of Petersburg.

He was what I deem a hero. Why not? What is a hero? I understand the word to imply: one who dares danger, laughs at pain, challenges death, preferring torture to cowering at the feet of a rebel fiend in the shape of mortal man.

Such was he of whom I have spoken. He had many friends at home, who will mourn his death. But he died like a brave warrior. He has left an untarnished name; and, while we lament his loss, we glory in his bravery.” – William L. Miller, Serg’t Major, 22nd U. S. C. T. (Source: The Christian Recorder, September 17, 1864)


“A Splendid Charge,” Petersburg National Battlefield, Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2012. All rights reserved
Here at Petersburg on June 15, 1864, African American troops recorded their first major success of the war in Virginia.
 After the capture of Battery 5, some of the 3,500 black troops swept southward, routing Confederates before them. At dusk, they charged on Battery 9 and swarmed over the works. During two hours of fighting on the Dimmock Line that evening, the U. S. Colored Troops (official designation) captured dozens of Confederate and six cannons.
“They made a splendid charge…and won great favor in the eyes of white soldiers by their courage and bravery.” Wilbur Fiske, 2nd Vermont Infantry, June 19, 1864

According to his enlistment record, Pvt. Charles Carter was born about 1842 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He was described as five feet, five and one-half inches tall, with black skin, eyes, and hair. His occupation was documented as “moulder.” In addition, the record notes that Pvt. Carter had one mole on his right shoulder, and “marks of cupping” on his back.

Pvt. Carter enlisted and mustered at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 15, 1863. Regarding his death, the record notes “killed June 15/64 in charging enemy’s works in front of Petersburg, Va.”

Pvt. Carter fell during the first day of the Siege of Petersburg, His body laid between enemy lines, amidst the bodies of hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers until a flag of truce was called two months later to bury the dead.

On Sunday evening, about two o’clock, Burnside sent a flag of truce, asking for a cessation of hostilities to bury the dead between the lines. General Beauregard responded that whenever a proposition came from the General commanding the army of the Potomac it would be entertained. Immediately after the return of the first paper General Meade sent a flag covering a similar request. About two o’clock Monday morning General Beauregard replied, granting the request and fixing the hours between nine A. M. and five A. M. for the purposes indicated. At the hour named, or just about sunrise, three gaily-dressed, flashing-looking officers raised an elegant white flag, mounted on a handsome staff, and advanced from their line of works. Simultaneously two shabbily-dressed but brave Confederates, mounting a dirty pocket handkerchief on a ramrod, proceeded to meet them. A brief parley ensued, civilities were exchanged, and then the details came to do the work of the truce—the burial of the dead. For five hours the work went vigorously forward. The Yankees brought details of negroes, and we carried their negroes out under guard to help them in their work. Over seven hundred Yankees, whites and negroes, were buried. A. P. Hill was there, with long gauntlets, slouch hat, and round jacket. Mahone, dressed in little-boy-fashion cut of clothes, made from old Yankee tent cloth, was beside him. The gallant Harris, of the Mississippi brigade, and the gallant, intrepid Sanders, who but forty eight hours before but so successfully retaken those works—the best looking and best dressed Confederate officer present—was sauntering leisurely about, having a general superintendence over the whole affair. On th Yankee side there was any number of nice young men, dressed jauntily, carelessly smoking cigars and proffering whiskey, wine, and brandy of the best labels, and of sufficient age to warrant its flavor. More than one Confederate took a smi’e. Some took two, and one told me that finding the liquor of the “peace” order, he went it seven times. Several bottles were sent as presents to our leading generals. The Yankees talked freely, said their loss would be five thousand, that the whites blamed the negroes, and the negroes in turn charged the disasters of the day upon the whites. They all agreed that Burnside was just an hour and a half behind time, and that he was the greatest of modern butchers, as Marye’s hill and Griffith’s farm would abundantly attest.—Whilst the truce lasted, the Yankees and the “Johnny Rebs,” in countless number, flocked to the neutral grounds and spent the time in chatting and sight-seeing. The stench, however, was quite strong, and it required a good nose and a better stomach to carry one through the ordeal. About nine o’clock, the burial being completed, the officers sent the men back to the trenches, on each side. The officers bade each other adieu and returned to their respective lines.Everything is quiet to-day, and has been since Grant’s coup de main of Saturday.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 3, 1864
The Siege of Petersburg-Burying the Dead Under a Flag of Truce, After the Repulse of the Ninth Army Corps. Library of Congress

My paternal great-great-great-granduncle, Daniel Orton (ca. 1842-1864), also died on June 15, 1864. However, neither his grave, nor that of Pvt. Charles Carter, has ever been properly identified. They are both likely buried in Poplar Grove National Cemetery, marked by “unknown” gravestones.

Virginia-native Sgt. Major William L. Miller, the author of the article, returned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after the war, and lived there until his death on May 2, 1921. He is interred in Section 2, Dayton National Cemetery, Montgomery County, Ohio.

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