Sunday, March 8, 2015

“I Guess the Tables are Turned.”

Few Civil War soldiers had the distinction of capturing 300 enemy soldiers by themselves. Indeed, the thought is almost unthinkable. Yet, late in the war, one young Union captain found himself in that position, capturing an entire Confederate regiment at the Battle of Fort Stedman.

Here’s how it happened.

At 4:15 A.M., March 25, 1865, Lt. Gen. J. B. Gordon’s Confederates tore a hole through the Union defenses east of Petersburg, seizing Fort Stedman and several adjoining batteries, numbers X, XI, and XII. The Confederates’ success did not last for long. Although Gordon’s 10,000 soldiers had penetrated Union lines, they were somewhat bewildered by their own triumph and failed to continue the assault. Ideally, they should have advanced to the U.S. Military Railroad—which was only one mile ahead of them—and if they had done so, they might have cut off the Union supply line to Petersburg’s western front. However, in the rising sunlight, the assault failed to regain its momentum.

This delay enabled quick-thinking Union commanders to mount a counterattack, one that retook the entrenchments only a few hours after the initial breakthrough. The most significant riposte came from Brig. General John Hartranft’s 3rd Division, 9th Corps, a unit of six brand new Pennsylvania regiments. Roused from their bivouacs in the pre-dawn darkness, Hartranft’s 9,000 men suited for battle, retaking Fort Stedman and the surrounding earthworks by mid-morning. In addition to the Pennsylvanians, two additional 9th Corps regiments attacked the Confederate breach from the south: the 100th Pennsylvania and the 3rd Maryland Battalion. Both of these units had been stationed at nearby Fort Haskell, repelling two brigades of rebel soldiers that tried to widen the rupture.

Twenty-three-year-old Captain Joseph Franklin Carter commanded the 3rd Maryland Battalion, a unit of Baltimore veterans that had been with the Army of the Potomac through many of its toughest engagements. Carter’s Marylanders aided in the retaking of Fort Stedman and spent much of the late-morning rounding up prisoners as the smoke cleared. Carter, however, claimed the largest capture, accepting the surrender of some 300 Confederates.

Capt. Joseph F. Carter commanded the 3rd Maryland at Fort Stedman. In 1891, he received the Medal of Honor.

This map depicts the Union counterattack at Fort Stedman. Carter's regiment, the 3rd Maryland Battalion, advanced from Fort Haskell (to the south) while Brig. Gen. Hartranft's division attacked from the east. Note the mystery Virginia regiment standing on the road near the covered way.

As the Union emblem once more floated triumphantly above the parapet at Fort Stedman, Carter spied a Confederate unit to the northeast. Somehow, one gray-clad regiment had gone ahead with the plan to seize the U.S. Military Railroad; it was the only rebel unit with enough cohesion to attempt such a brave act. Following an old wagon road, the regiment passed over a Union covered way and then descended into ravine. As it did so, the 9th Corps artillery opened fire on it, causing the regiment to seek cover. (The identity of this regiment is a bit of a mystery. Carter later claimed that it was the 51st Virginia, but no such regiment participated in the attack. Most likely, it belonged to Brig. Gen. James A. Walker’s brigade. It was either the 13th, 31st, 49th, 52nd, or 58th Virginia.) Sensing an opportunity to take the whole unit while it was ensconced in its hole, Carter called for his men to follow him, and with sword in hand, he rushed for the ravine.

Comically, Carter made his advance all on his own. His men were too busy rounding up prisoners and did not notice that their commander had given them orders to follow him. Likewise, Carter made no attempt to look behind him to see if any of his soldiers had heard. He remembered, “I did not notice their absence, but kept right on.” Coming to the bank of the road—which was ten-feet high—he looked down upon the cluttered Confederates and parlayed with their captain, entreating with him to surrender.

“Well, where are your men?” came the reply.

Carter looked behind him. He recalled, “Then came a surprise on my side. Looking back of me I made the embarrassing discovery that I was alone. Surely this was a tight fix to be in, but there was no other way out of it except by strong argument and explanation.”

Undaunted, Carter told the Confederates that he did not need his men to execute the capture of all 300 of them. They were in a ditch and could not escape it, lest they risk getting pummeled by the 9th Corps artillery on nearby Dunn’s Hill. This logic made sense to the Confederate captain in command, and he ordered his men to thrown down their arms. Nearly all of them did so; however, a stubborn Confederate lieutenant, a color-bearer, and five other men decided to ignore those instructions and began walking west, back toward Confederate lines.

Realizing that he could not let these seven men ignore the orders to surrender, as it might set a precedent for the others, Carter accosted them, demanding that they relinquish their flag.

The Confederate lieutenant called Carter’s bluff. He said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll give you that flag! And furthermore I want to tell you that you are my prisoner. Give me your gun!” The six-man color-guard raised their guns, and as Carter explained it, they “made a most expressive show of resistance.” Carter was not unmindful of how quickly the tables had turned on him. He wrote:

Here I was in a pretty mess. The rebel guns were raised at my head. If I pulled my trigger [on my pistol] I would sound my own death-knell. Surrounded by rebels, beyond the help of my own troops, it would have been folly to carry the bluff farther, so I made a virtue out of necessity and handed the lieutenant my gun. And thus I, who only a few minutes ago had captured a whole regiment, was made a prisoner myself. All my arguing as to him and his men being cut off brought only the curt reply, ‘Come along, we’ll see.’

Carter’s Confederate captors marched him toward Confederate lines, but they did not make it over the Union breastworks. As the party approached the Union earthworks from the east side, the captors seemed unsure of their location. This delay helped Captain Carter. He saw three Union soldiers from the 100th Pennsylvania walking leisurely by at a distance of sixty yards. Calling over to them, he shouted, “Boys, I am a prisoner here!” The amused Pennsylvanians came over on a run, saying, “All right, Captain, we’ll save you.” Turning to the Virginia lieutenant, one of them said, “Lieutenant, what say you now? I guess the tables are turned. You are our prisoner.”

Crestfallen, the Confederate lieutenant said nothing but, “I surrender.”

Gleeful, Carter grabbed the enemy flag and ran with it back to the Confederate regiment still trapped in the road cut. To get the Union artillerists to cease fire, Carter tried to get their attention by waving his sword at them. This caused him to drop the Confederate banner and trample it underfoot. The following account by Carter completed the narrative:

Throwing down the flag, I trampled upon it and waved my sword over my head. This had the desired effect. Our men rested their guns, but on the other hand my action had been watched by the Confederates from their works about 200 yards away. Incensed at the indignity to their colors they poured a most terrific fire in our direction, rendering our position as critical as before. I finally picked up the colors from the ground and started on a dead run with my prisoners for our works, being forced to go for sixty yards towards the enemy, and expose myself to their concentrated fire, before I reached the cover of our own works. The rebel regiment was shortly afterward brought in as prisoners by Hartranft’s men.

This is the only artistic depiction of Carter's action. It shows him stepping on the Virginia regiment's banner, while waving his sword at nearby Union artillery. There are a few inaccuracies in Carter's uniform and Dunn's Hill (the rise in the background) should not be so steep.
Here, I've mapped out the movements of Capt. Carter during his attempt to capture the mystery Virginia regiment. At this point, Union troops have retaken the earthworks around Fort Stedman. The 9th Corps artillery was off the map to the northeast.
Carter wrote this account many years after the war. His after-action report, which he completed two days after the Battle of Fort Stedman, he said nothing about the incident, except that he had taken an enemy flag. Carter’s modesty did not endure forever, and in the last decade of the nineteenth-century, he applied for a Medal of Honor, citing his actions at Fort Stedman as sufficient reason for recognition. On July 9, 1891, the War Department awarded him a Medal of Honor for “Captur[ing] the colors of the 51st Virginia Infantry (C.S.A.). During the battle he was captured and escaped bringing a number of prisoners with him.” At the time, he was forty-nine-years-old.

As delighted as Carter was to receive the award, he never made any claim that he had captured the mystery Virginia regiment single-handedly. Indeed, his account made it abundantly clear that he owed everything to the soldiers from the 100th Pennsylvania who rescued him when he was temporarily captured by the Virginia color-guard. Further, Carter he pointed out that the 9th Corps artillery on Dunn’s Hill had done the hard work, forcing the enemy regiment into hiding. Carter just happened to be the first one to approach the Confederate captain and request his surrender.

This story speaks to a universal truth about war. In general, war heroes rarely complete their acts of valor without a helping hand, and Carter’s account demonstrated that he benefited from plenty of assistance. Additionally, the confusing circumstances of battle caused the tables to turn minute-by-minute. At one point, Carter was the captor, then the captive, and then the captor again. The tables turned rapidly. In a general sense, that is the story of Fort Stedman.

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