Lack of Union Leadership on the Field Leads to Hundreds Captured … and Andersonville
June 13, 1864. One of the worst tragedies to befall Vermont troops during the Civil War began to unfold on the morning of June 23, 1864. With Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army largely confined to fortifications that stretched from Richmond twenty-three miles south to Petersburg, the Union army continued its efforts to encircle the rebels and cut off vital supply lines, especially railroads. On June 23, Vermont troops were detailed to reconnoiter the Weldon Railroad, which ran north to south. This advance was part of a tentative and ill-managed effort by Sixth Corps commander Horatio G. Wright to fulfill the orders of General George G. Meade for a general advance. (1) The result was the capture of 412 Vermonters.
Confederate resistance in the region had been stubborn, and the Southerners used their knowledge of the terrain to great advantage. Just the day before, more than 1,700 soldiers of the Union Second Corps had been captured in a poorly coordinated movement just to the north of the ground that the Vermonters occupied. (2) Initially, the Vermont sharpshooters encountered little resistance as they advanced to the Weldon Railroad. “Pioneers” (soldiers detailed for construction, or in this case, dismantling projects) soon followed with tools to tear up the railroad. Meanwhile, lookouts observed dust clouds rising along the road heading south from Petersburg. (3)
The debacle that ensued, while of minor military significance, illustrated the great challenges of coordinating operations in enemy territory and maintaining chains of command. Despite credible reports of advancing Confederates, cavalry was not effectively deployed to gather information. The Vermont skirmishers had little communication with adjoining units, and orders at all levels were at times confusing or contradictory. Poor decision-making and stubbornness among some of the officers contributed to a worsening situation. When the attack came, the sharpshooters and pioneers succeeded in retreating to the main line of defense, but most of the skirmishers remained in place without orders to fall back. By dusk, the Confederates had outflanked and surrounded them. In all, 27 officers and 385 enlisted men from Vermont were forced to surrender. (4)
My company is gone to Richmond [as POWs] and all of the officers with them. One of our men got away from them. He sed it made John swear some when he had to throw down his sword. Our Cap and three Lieutenants are taken prisoner. Mother you must take this as cool as possible for if the rebs fight like this they will get the whole [Union] armey. I have got all of John’s things all of his letters and everything but mother he is a prisoner. (5)
Forty-nine Vermonters were killed or wounded in the action near Weldon Railroad. Unfortunately, their capture was only the beginning of the problems for the 412 taken prisoner: they were soon marched to Camp Sumter, the infamous prison near Andersonville, Georgia. The stockaded prison surrounding 26.5 acres was designed to hold 10,000 men, but by August 1864, more than 32,000 were crowded into the pen. Without adequate sanitation, clean drinking water, sufficient food, or shelter, some 13,000 prisoners perished before Andersonville was liberated in March 1865. (6) Among the Vermonters, the toll was staggering: 201 enlisted men and 2 officers among the Weldon Railroad prisoners died at Andersonville, and many more returned home permanently disabled. (7)
1. David Faris Cross, A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864 (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books, 2003), 52.
2. Ibid., 8.
3. Ibid., 10-18.
4. David F. Cross, Vermont Brigade Casualties on June 23, 1864 at the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, Volume One, (Ferrisburgh, VT: David F. Cross, 2011), 3. For a full analysis of the performance of the officers and troops, see A Melancholy Affair, 132-74.
5. John S. Drenan Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute.
7. Cross, Vermont Brigade Casualties, 3.
– Submitted by Jeffrey Marshall, Director of Research Collections, University of Vermont Libraries