1862: James Henry Platt, Jr. to Sarah (Foster) Platt

Capt. Harry Platt, Co. B, 4th Vermont (John Gibson Collection)

This letter was written by James Henry Platt, Jr. (1837-1894), who was raised in Burlington, Vermont. He completed preparatory studies and graduated from the medical department of the University of Vermont at Burlington in 1859 when he was 23. On 23 February 1859 he married Sarah Caroline Foster in Rutland, Vermont. He later married the suffragist and widow Sarah Sophia Chase Decker (1856–1912), who survived him.

“Harry” (as he preferred to be called) enlisted in August 1861 as a Captain in Co. B, 4th Vermont Volunteers. The 4th Vermont was organized at Brattleboro under the young Colonel Edwin Henry Stoughton and spent its first autumn in Virginia with Brooks’ Brigade, primarily tasked with the defense of Washington, DC at Camp Griffin.

While at Camp Griffin, the 4th Vermont was brigaded with several other Vermont regiments and was, therefore, often referred to as the “Vermont Brigade.” The brigade had a storied career and played a part in many important battles of the Army of the Potomac, including the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Battle of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Ft. Stevens, and Winchester.

This incredible letter pertains to the first real test of the regiment which took place during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. After landing his troops on the tip of the peninsula formed by the James and York rivers, McClellan sent them towards Yorktown. Long before arriving there, however, he found that the Confederates had established a line of defense across the entire peninsula on or near the Warwick river—a formidable barrier by itself but also heavily fortified. On the morning of the 16th of April 1862, Brig. Gen. Baldy Smith sent two Vermont regiments from his 2nd Brigade towards the Confederate position near Lee’s Mill with orders to open fire on any working parties. Though the infantry opened the engagement, it devolved into an artillery duel with both sides suffering losses. No advance was accomplished and McClellan settled on the strategy of a siege. The engagement of 16 April 1862 has been referred to by various names, including the Battle of Lee’s Mill, the Battle of Burnt Chimneys, or the Battle of Dam No. 1.

As a counterpoint to this letter, I have placed a transcript in the footnotes of a letter written by 2Lt Cadmus M. Amoss of Cobb’s Legion who described the assault of the Vermont Brigade from the Confederate perspective.

To read other letters by members of the 4th Vermont Infantry I’ve transcribed and posted on Spared & Shared, see:
Daniel H. Gilson, Co. C, 4th Vermont (1 Letter)
Herbert Edward Taylor, Co. F, 4th Vermont (1 Letter)
William Rowe Russell, Co. F/G, 4th Vermont (13 letters)
Edwin A. Cummings, Co. G, 4th Vermont (1 Letter)
Jesse Smith Ormsbee, Co. G, 4th Vermont (1 Letter)
Mansfield Johnson Taplin, Co. H, Vermont (1 Letter)
Seth M. Bishop, Co. I, 4th Vermont (9 Letters)

[This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]

Transcription

Camp near Yorktown, Virginia
April 20th 1862

My Darling Wife,

No fighting worth mentioning has occurred since yesterday when I last wrote you. About 3 p.m., the rebels displayed a “flag of truce” from their works, and proposed a cessation of hostilities for two hours to enable them to bury their dead. This was agreed to on our part on condition that they send us the dead of our regiments left on their side of the creek on Wednesday. The preliminaries being arranged, the sad work commenced and a party of their men brought our dead, one by one, half-way across the dam at which point they were received by our men. The spectacle—though melancholy—was deeply interesting. The rebel troops were in full sight, all portions of their works being covered with them, and a large body of their horsemen were stationed along the bank of the creek. Our men were also out in large numbers. On the dam midway between the two shores were two rebel officers and two of Gen. Smith’s staff amiably conversing. To have seen them meet, one would have thought it a meeting of dear friends long separated so cordial were the handshakes & so mutual the smiles.

“They expressed their determination to make every farm in Virginia a graveyard and every house a hospital before they would yield…”

Capt. Harry Platt, Co. B, 4th Vermont, 20 April 1862

A large party of the rebels were engaged sorting the dead, conveying their own into their fort, and ours to the party waiting to receive them. Thirty-three bodies were conveyed to our side, and seemingly three were carried into the fort to [every] one brought over [to ours]. While engaged in the work, the two parties conversed together freely. One of the rebels said he was from Burlington, Vermont, and his name he gave as Lyon. They expressed their determination to make every farm in Virginia a graveyard and every house a hospital before they would yield and other remarks of the “dying in the last ditch” style.

At the expiration of the two hours, forty minutes was agreed upon for both parties to place themselves in safety and at the end of forty minutes the white flag was hauled down and we were enemies once more. It was a sad sight to me to see my old friends and comrades from Co. F and some of the men in Co. K to whom last summer I taught the rudiments of military discipline, brought in lifeless & disfigured by wounds and lying so long on the field uncared for. But such is war. Gallantly they met the fate of true soldiers & fell bravely fighting for the noble cause we are defending.

It is a curious circumstance that rebels exhibit no flag. The white flag is the only emblem we have seen.

Our dead were buried carefully and tenderly amid the groups of sorrowing comrades who witnessed this last sad office. 1

I went out at 9 o’clock with a fatigue party of one hundred men to work on rifle pits & trenches which are being thrown up to shelter our men who protect the batteries. Imagine an open field of ten or twelve acres directly in front of the rebel fort with the creek between and surrounded on three sides by dense woods. Let me attempt a diagram which may better enable you to understand the position. You will find it enclosed & please don’t laugh at it as it’s only for your eyes. The rifle pits marked 10 are simply dry ditches with the dirt thrown up so that when a man is standing in the ditch, the embankment rises about a foot above his head thus completely protecting him from bullets. These, as you perceive, allow communication between the different batteries at all times & serve to protect infantry. we worked on these all night. Every few minutes the rebels would fire a heavy volley of musketry at us to embarrass us in the work. The men were all in the trenches shoveling like good fellows. I stood on the bank keeping a sharp look out for the first sign of a volley. The night was very dark & it rained hard all night. When the rebels fired, I could see the flash of the powder, then hear the report. At the flash, I would sign out “Down!” and jump into the trench and just get in when bang would come the bullets whizzing over our heads & striking all around us, when we would jump and work away until the next volley, & thus we passed the night.

The firing alarmed the camps and three times the regiments were called out by the long roll and marched out under arms so that on the whole, those of us who were at work had about the best of it. Tonight the entire regiment with the exception of those who were out last night are out as guards for the batteries. It has been raining all day but has stopped for the present.

I am very comfortably fixed and the regiment is encamped in a magnificent grove of great pines. I should enjoy myself very much could I only know that my dear wife was well and free from suffering. I do not hear at all regularly from you. Our mails come and go as it happens. We do not know whether our letters ever reach their destination but I continue to write to you almost daily. Believe me dear one, you are continually in my thoughts and your suffering causes me much anxiety and if I could only bear them for you or in some way lighten them, it would cause me great happiness. I look anxiously for the hoped for intelligence of your convalescence.

Ever your own loving, — Harry

Map showing the placement and lines of attack by the Vermont Brigade on 16 April 1862

1 The Union dead came from four companies (totaling 192 men) of the 3rd Vermont Infantry who advanced from the woods toward the Confederate position across the Warwick river. “Wading through the waist-deep river channel below the dam, the ‘Green Mountains Boys’ drove the surprised Confederates from the first line of rifle pits along the water’s edge. The Confederate unit at the center of the attack and taking the brunt of this vigorous attack was the 15th North Carolina whose Colonel William McKinney, was killed while rallying his soldiers. The death of Col. McKinney and an unauthorized order to fall back caused confusion all along the entire line. General Howell Cobb, Commander of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, immediately reorganized and stabilized the line as he rode among the soldiers on horseback. General Cobb then proceeded to launch a brigade-sized counterattack against the four Vermont companies…As the Confederates regrouped and reinforced their line, the Vermonters with their backs to the river were in a desperate situation. They were running out of ammunition and taking severe casualties. With no hope of reinforcements coming, the Vermonters reluctantly withdrew back across the river after holding their position for one hour. A second attack later in the day by the 4th and 6th Vermont was even less successful…Confederate casualties for the day were approximately 75 killed and wounded. Union casualties at Dam No. 1 were 35 dead and 121 wounded. Of this number the 3rd Vermont lost 23 killed and 51 wounded.” [Newport News Park Brochure]

It should be noted that it was generally conceded by most accounts that the Warwick River was between two to four feet deep and 150-200 yards wide at the location of the attack made by the Vermonters on 16 April 1862. It is estimated that the combined force of the second attack composed of men from the 4th and 6th Vermonts could not have exceeded 750 men. It was the 6th Vermont that led the second assault. Four companies of the 4th Vermont were used only to create a diversion which was doomed by Rebel gunfire almost before it began.

It should also be noted that Capt. Platt’s inference that the cessation of hostilities was called by the Confederates is most assuredly false. Not only does the literature support the argument that the union forces called for it, but logic tells us that retrieving bodies from the other side of the Warwick River would be much more difficult for the Union army than the Confederate army, let alone the number of casualties which was tipped in favor of the Federals.

The following letter was written by 2Lt. Cadmus M. Amoss of Cobb’s Legion who described the Battle of Lee’s Mills (Dam No. 1) from the Confederate perspective. The letter was sold recently by Iron Horse Military Antiques. Amoss wrote the letter home to his wife on April 21, 1862, during the federal siege of Yorktown during the Peninsula Campaign. In the letter Amoss discusses the “stirring times we have had,” including the April 16 skirmish at Dam No. 1 on the Warwick River. The dam was one of three ordered built by Confederate General John Magruder in order to create lakes to obstruct the Union Army’s advance. The men of General Howell Cobb’s Brigade had been improving the defenses around Dam No. 1 on April 16 when Union troops of General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s division launched a probing attack.

Camp Near Lee’s Mills, York Co. Virginia
April 21st 1862

My Dear Georgia,

This is the only opportunity I have had of writing to you since my last letter and I am glad to have a few moments leisure in which to give you an account of the stirring times we have had. Last Wednesday the enemy commenced shelling our batteries placed at Dam No. 1 about a quarter of a mile above us. The shelling continued without intermission all the morning, doing little or no damage. Our company was stationed behind a breastwork at Dam No. 2. At three o’clock in the afternoon the Yankees sent over three picked companies to charge one of the rifle pits a little below Dam No. 1 at which the 15th N.C. Regiment was at work. This regiment—having no guns to fight with—were driven from the pits by the yankees, who charged over them. The Seventh Georgia was then ordered to charge the Yankees, which they did with a loud shout. The Yankees could not stand before them, but fell precipitously into the pond through which they had waded. Twenty or thirty were killed and a great number wounded. The enemy attacked us at two or three other points, but were repulsed with considerable loss every time. The regiments that bore the brunt of the battle that day was the Seventh, Eighth, and Sixteenth Georgia and Second Louisiana. Our regiment was situated at different points. Our company was fired on several times across the pond about two hundred yards by Yankees behind trees. No one hurt in the Legion. The enemy dismounted one of our largest guns that day. Our entire loss was sixteen killed and about sixty wounded. The enemy’s loss in killed and wounded is estimated at three hundred.

I was perfectly surprised at the noise and uproar made on that day. The whole world would tremble with the roar of artillery and musketry.

Our regiment remained in the breastworks day and night for four days after the battle. We were relieved yesterday morning by another regiment. I am perfectly worn out with loss of rest. I forgot to tell you that the enjoyment lasted four hours. Nearly all the troops that were at Manassas are here. I have seen a great many acquaintances recently. Gus Bacon and John McLendon are here. Reuben Jordan is also here. Yesterday evening I met up with Guss Bull. He is Lieut Col of the 35 Georgia. Virgil Hopson is in the same regiment.

Yesterday evening Gus Bacon and John McLendon came down to see me. They were nearly perished and are here without overcoats or blankets. I gave them plenty of ham and biscuits which they relished amazingly. There is at least twenty thousand Georgians here and if the yankees come over they will meet with a warm reception from them. The yankees sent over a flag of truce to bury their dead day before yesterday. I was up there at the time and saw about thirty of them carried over. They were all well uniformed and had the minnie musket. Nearly all of them were shot through the head. Several letters were found about the persons of the yankees, one of which was from a brother of the one killed who lived at Quebec, Canada. The writer was of the opinion that the South could not be conquered and wished the war would come to a close. The regiment that charged our breastworks was the Third Vermont and the company of which nearly all were killed was [of] the Vermont volunteers. I have no idea when they will attack us again. They are here in great force, but I think we will whip them every time they attempt to cross over the creek.

We hear their brass bands and drums every night. I never heard sweeter music than they have over the creek from us about a half mile.

If they intend doing anything I wish they would commence at once so that we may fight it out and quit. I am exceedingly anxious to hear from you but am afraid your letters cannot reach me. If anyone should come to this point from Atlanta I will try to let you know in time. One of your letters directed to Suffolk was handed me about the first of last week. I was truly glad to learn that you were well up to that time. Since I have been thinking about it there is a chance of getting a letter from you. It may be lost on the way but rather than not hear from you at all I think it would be well to risk writing. At all events write to me and direct your letter to Yorktown as before.

I will write again as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Give my love to all the family and kiss Henry for me.

Your affectionate husband—C. M. Amoss


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