A Very Important Letter From Chaplain Turner

Siege at Petersburg: Library of Congress
A Very Important Letter From Chaplain Turner

Front of Petersburg, Va., June 30th 1864

Christian Recorder: July 9, 1864

Turner writes about the Siege at Petersburg

Mr. Editor : - As I promised in my last letter to give you a further account of our doings, I embrace this opportunity of complying with said promise. You will not look for anything like rhetorical flourishes, I trust, nor even excellence in composition, as you will perceive by the heading of my letter, that I am actually on the field of battle; and allow me to inform you, if you are not already aware, that a man thinks very little about the niceties of literature when bombs and balls are flying around his head; for, if such a shower of iron hail as was falling an hour ago over and around our camp, was in hearing distance of your editorial chair, I think your leaders would be few. I need not refer to this evening particularly, yet it was rather more severe than usual, but might, with incredulous propriety, refer to every day in the week, and Sunday, too, for the last two weeks.

On the morning of the 15th inst., I awoke from sleep at a later hour than usual. We were then at City Point, Va., nine miles in our rear now. The sun was up, and everything seemed quiet and still, with the exception of awful cannonading and musketry, which appeared to be about three or four miles distant toward Petersburg. This did not raise my curiosity, as it was a very ordinary thing; but, on looking out, I was much surprised to see our camp tents, but no men in them. This natural query, however, was soon settled by being informed by Quartermaster-Sergeant Pollard, that the regiment had moved that morning at three o’clock, and it was thought unnecessary to interrupt me at that hour. I soon learned, that, not only had my regiment moved, but that the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, which were encamped next to us, and all the batteries had done the same.

Shortly after the reception of this intelligence, I started in pursuit of my regiment. Several of the boys, who had, for various reasons, stayed behind, fell in and left with me, so that I soon found myself surrounded by a pretty strong guard. Thus traveling for about four miles, I found a house, in which several of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth United States Colored Troops were quartered, having been wounded; a few had also been killed. But seeing so few of the men of my regiment there, I went on to overtake them. A few paces, however, brought me to another house, which had been converted into a hospital. Chaplain Hunter found several of his men wounded (I omitted saying that Chaplain Hunter left camp with me and accompanied me all the way;) yet I still found but few of my men. Here I returned thanks to Heaven so few in my regiment had suffered, and went on again. The cause was, that our men were on the left wing at the time the charge was made, and happily escaped the rebel grape and canister. The prosecution of my journey soon led me to where the first conflict had taken place. The rebels had a line of rifle-pits and embrasures thrown up across the road which led to Petersburg, and intended to stop our headway if we attempted to pass; but the colored troops told the rebels, that it was too early in the morning for such fun as that. Consequently, they charged upon the rebel’s works, took all their cannon (four pieces) and flayed the scoundrels as they would a set of mad dogs. Those of them who escaped the death-pills of our boys, played a most successful fame of skedaddling, many of whom won their life by it. My regiment then led the advance, and drove the rebels some five or six miles, keeping up a continual skirmish all the time.

Our gallant and efficient Colonel, John H. Holman, having been placed in command of a brigade by General Hicks, the Division Commander, the duty of leading our regiment devolved upon Lieutenant-Colonel Elias Wright, whose military genius and strategical skill in maneuvering his regiment to save his men, and at the same time evincing the most surprising bravery himself, and inspiring his command with the same spirit, purchased for him a place in the affections of the regiment, that I doubt whether time, circumstances or events will ever obliterate. With this noble officer in front, our regiment followed the rebels in hot pursuit, till they came in front of the five forts on the heights around Petersburg. These forts and fortifications were regarded impregnable by the rebels. Here my regiment, in the advance, and the rest of the colored troops lay under the galling fire of the rebel forts and sharp shooters for nearly eight hours, part of which time I was with the advance skirmishers, and the only chance a man had for his life was to lie as flat on the ground as a leech upon his prey.

A shell would often burst in the midst of the ranks, and sever arms and legs from the bodies of our brave soldiers with as much ease, apparently, as if they had dropped off themselves. Sometimes the rebel forts would be playing on us and over us in the front, and our own artillery plating on us (not knowingly) in the rear. Several of our men were killed by our own shells that day. In this precarious predicament we had to gain foot by foot and inch by inch toward the rebel forts, till late in the afternoon, when Colonel Holman resolved that he would keep his men under fire no longer, unless it was to accomplish some end more than had been achieved for several hours. So he rode down the line of his brigade, and told the men to get ready to take the forts, which was glorious news the boys. A few moments only intervened before the bayonets were fixed, and away went Uncle Sam’s sable sons across and old field nearly three-quarters of a mile wide, is the face of rebel grape and canister and the unbroken clatter of thousands of muskets. Nothing less than the pen of horror could begin to describe the terrific roar and dying yells of that awful yet masterly charge and daring feat.

The rebels’ balls would tear up the ground at times, and create such a heavy dust in front of our charging army, that they could scarcely see the forts for which they were making. But onward they went through dust and every impediment, while they and the rebels were both crying out – “Fort Pillow!” This seems to be the battle cry on both sides. But onward they went, waxing stronger and mightier every time Fort Pillow was mentioned. Soon the boys were at the base of the Fort, climbing over abbatis, and jumping the deep ditches, ravines, &c. The last load fired by the rebel battery, was a cartridge of powder, not having time to put the ball in, which flashed and did no injury.

The next place we saw the rebels, was going out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind. Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.

Thus ended the great battle for that day, after driving the rebels six miles, taking their fortifications, killing many, and capturing five forts that were considered impregnable, all their cannons, wagons, ammunition, &c., &c.

It is my intention to send you a list of the killed and wounded as soon as I get time to prepare it, which I have not time to prepare now, as there is not a minute, from one week’s end to another, but what a gun is firing. Whether it be night or day, all you hear is bang! bang! either with muskets, cannons, mortars, or shells. I would remark, however, that the loss in our regiment amounts to one hundred and fifty-six killed and wounded, one hundred and forty-six soldiers and ten officers. I am sorry to mention that Orderly-Sergeant George W. Hatton was shot through the leg near the knee. Sergeant Hatton was widely known for his usefulness in the Israel Lyceum, in Washington, D.C. When he was hot, he fell and exclaimed to Bro. Hunter, who was nearby, “Chaplain, I am shot, and am dying for my rights.” But, thank God, he was not dying, though he thought so then. I wish I had time to mention dying expressions made by those who did die and those who thought they were dying. Some of the sentences were too sublime for earthly being to utter, and every one highly patriotic.

I must refer, however, to one man whose arm was blown off by a shell near his shoulder. In his helpless condition he begged another soldier to load his gun while he fired, and was only got off the field by persistent measures.

There is one thing, though, which is highly endorsed by an immense number of both white and colored people, which I am sternly opposed to, and that is, the killing of all the rebel prisoners taken by our soldiers. True, the rebels have set the example, particularly in killing the colored soldiers; but it is a cruel one, and two cruel acts never make one humane act. Such a course of warfare is an outrage upon civilization and nominal Christianity. And inasmuch as it was presumed that we would carry out a brutal warfare, let us disappoint our malicious anticipators, by showing the world that higher sentiments not only prevail, but actually predominate.

Before closing I would say that the brilliant achievements of our boys in front of Petersburg was more than timed, and did more to conquer the prejudice of the army of the Potomac than a thousand newspaper puffs. Providentially, the most of that immense army had to pass right by the forts taken by the colored soldiers. Every soldier with whom I came in contact had but little to say, except to pay the most flattering compliments to the brave colored men of our division. After that the white and colored soldiers talked, laughed, and eat together with a friendly regard, not surpassed by any previous occasion. Let the Forts of Petersburg hereafter add new stars to the glorious constellation, which are glittering with untarnished brilliancy above the horizon of the black man’s elevation. Let them stand a monument to his bravery, heroism, and daring. But I must now close this letter, it being entirely too long.

Mr. Editor, before closing, permit me to say that I have received a copy of the General Conference Minutes; and , if I understand it, I have learned that no bishop is assigned to the work in California. I hope I am mistaken. But it appears that Brother Ward is to act as superintendent over that field. Please inform me if such is the case: for it is, I shall certainly write out my opinion, regardless of friend or foe.

I have also read that the General Conference proposed to present our regiment (1st U.S. Col’d Troops) with one thousand Hymn Books. I must have the boys tune up their vocal organs preparatory to the presentation. You will hear from us again very soon.

I have the honor to be very respectfully,

H.M. Turner

Chaplain 1st U.S. Col’d Troops