Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Obliterated Battlefield

On December 19, 1864, the U.S. War Department called up 300,000 volunteers, the Union’s last call for troops during the Civil War. In response, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recruited about 9,000 one-year volunteers. Most of these recruits joined Brigadier General John F. Hartranft’s division, which included the 200th, 205th, 207th, 208th, 209th, and 211th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Twenty-one-year-old Israel Lauffer, the son of a Westmoreland County deacon, answered the call, joining Company K, 211th Pennsylvania. Lauffer—who is my wife’s ancestor—fought in only two engagements: the Battle of Fort Stedman and the Battle of Fort Mahone.

The April 2, 1865, Battle of Fort Mahone helped dislodge the Confederate hold on Petersburg and it remains one of the most significant battles in Civil War history. Combined with the 6th Corps “Breakthrough” assault, it was the battle that spelled doom for the Army of Northern Virginia. Victory in the East began with this moment. By all accounts, Fort Mahone was a dramatic battle. At 4:30 A.M., just as the sun began to peak over the horizon, Hartranft’s division and another division from the 9th Corps (Robert Potter's) formed en masse outside the Union earthworks at Fort Sedgwick. At the sound of a signal cannon, the bluecoats charged across a barren, mud-spattered no-man’s-land, bearing down on the mammoth Confederate-held earthwork. If the Civil War ever resembled the Great War of the next century, this was it. Samuel P. Bates’s postwar history of the 211th Pennsylvania explained:

When all was in readiness, the word to advance was given. . . . The work of destruction was scarcely begun, when a fearful discharge of grape and canister was brought to bear upon them, before which the stoutest might well quail. But closing up where their ranks were swept away, they soon broke the obstructions, . . . With a rush, the ground in front of the rebel works was cleared, and pushing up the steep and slippery sides of the forts, the troops were soon in complete possession, the enemy either captives or in full retreat, and the rebel main line of works . . . was triumphantly carried and held by the division.

(This Harper's Weekly sketch depicts the 9th Corps attack against Fort Mahone. The scene is looking North. Fort Mahone is the large lump on the horizon.)

(This is one of the many photographs taken of Confederate dead after the battle. This Confederate soldier died in one of the connecting trenches adjacent to the Confederate fort.)

The daring attack of April 2 cost the Union 9th Corps 1,500 men. Of that number, Hartranft’s division counted 594. Israel Lauffer was among the dead. After twelve weeks of soldiering, with only seven days left until the surrender at Appomattox, the war claimed his life. Lauffer left behind two bereaved parents and six brothers and sisters. His comrades buried his remains on the battlefield.

(Private Israel Lauffer, Company K, 211th Pennsylvania, died in the April 2, 1865, attack against Fort Mahone.)

The battlefield of Fort Mahone is a hard place to visit. A visitor can see nothing of it. Urban expansion in the 1970s and 1980s completely consumed Fort Sedgwick, Fort Mahone, the connecting earthworks, and the ground upon which the 9th Corps crossed. Presumably, even Lauffer’s early grave is now demolished, replaced by concrete. The city of Petersburg destroyed everything long before my wife was born. When she and I visit the site, we can see only the monument commemorating the six regiments of Hartranft’s division. But even visiting this monument is a hard thing. Although it is a stoic representation of the Union soldiers who fought, this monument experienced a terrible unveiling. In May 1909, President William H. Taft delivered the dedicatory remarks. He offered up a slanted reconciliationist address, one that paid more attention to the Confederates who killed the Pennsylvanians than to the Pennsylvanians themselves.

Taft said:

We could not dedicate this beautiful and enduring memorial to the volunteer soldiers of Pennsylvania with such a sense of its justice and appropriateness, had they not been confronted by an enemy capable of resisting their assaults with equal valor and fortitude. Pennsylvania’s pride must be in the victory achieved by her men against so brave, resolute and resourceful an enemy. That we can come here to-day and in the presence of thousands and tens of thousands of the survivors of the gallant army of Northern Virginia and of their descendants, and establish such an enduring monument by their hospitable welcome and acclaim, is conclusive proof of the uniting of the sections and a universal confession that all that was done was well done, that the battle had to be fought, that the sections had to be tried, but that in the end, the result has inured to the common benefit of all. The men of the Army of Northern Virginia fought for a principle which they believed to be right and for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, their homes — all, indeed, which men hold most dear.

Of course, it is unfair of me to chastise Taft, since this kind of rhetoric was common among national politicians at the time. When it came to Civil War memory, the president only did what others had already done many times over.

However, we are now more than 100 years removed from 1909. We are approaching “year four” of the sesquicentennial. It is time to do something about this obliterated battlefield. It would be foolish of me to hope that anything about the physical landscape could be restored, but the men of Hartranft’s division (and Robert Potter’s division) deserve their time in the sun. Their monument’s dedication rang hollow; their hallowed ground has been effaced. Truly, now is the time for our generation to do them honor.

(This map shows the positions of the 9th Corps overlaying the modern cityscape. The two most important earthworks--Fort Mahone and Fort Sedgwick--no longer exist. The battleground between the two forts is also gone. Only a segment of Fort Davis--at the bottom of the map--still exists.)
(Here's a modern satellite view of the battlefield. Can you see the Pennsylvania Monument in the lower right corner?)
(This photograph depicts the Pennsylvania monument. On May 19, 1909, President Taft delivered an uninspiring address, dedicating this monument.) 

1 comment:

  1. My great-grandfather Pvt. John B. Smeltzer of the 205th PA was wounded in this action. He survived the war.