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The Missing Letters of Civil War Soldier Frederick Pettit, Part Four


After heavy losses at Spotsylvania, Lt. General Grant’s army met General Lee’s army in the Battle of North Anna, May 23-26. Fred Pettit’s letter to his parents tells of the infantry’s activities after leaving Spotsylvania. It is dated May 31st, the first day of the major battle of the campaign at Cold Harbor and two days before he was fatally wounded.

Tuesday May 31st 1864

Dear parents:  When I wrote last we were near Spotsylvania Court House about 12 miles from Fredericksburg. We left that place on the evening of the 21st and marched all night in a south easterly direction. The next day we continued our march. That night we rested. The next day we continued on and in the evening came up with the rest of the army on the North Anna river about 23 miles from Richmond. The rebels were making a stand on the other side of the river and heavy fighting was going on. We lay in the road all night. The next day we moved down to the river. In the evening we crossed the river a short distance above, wading it. Lay that night on the bank. The next morning we moved to the front and were put on picket. Heavy skirmishing all day. We had 10 men wounded. The next day we were relieved and went to the rear. 

At dark we recrossed the river on a temporary bridge and our brigade was sent up the river to another crossing. Here we found the 9th corps recrossing the river. We were ordered to put up breast works to hold the ford. By daylight the whole army had recrossed the river and was moving down its banks. The rebels appeared on the opposite bank about sunrise and skirmishing commenced across the river. We had 2 men wounded in our reg. About 10 o’clock the enemy withdrew their infantry and put out cavalry pickets and we did the same. Our corps then followed on down the river after the rest of the army. We moved very slowly on account of the large waggon (sic) train in our front. We stopped that night about midnight.

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Edwin Forbes drawing of the Union Army crossing the Pamunkey River, 1864

The next morning we moved at 9 o’clock and continued on all night. At daylight the next morning we crossed the Pamunkey river on a pontoon bridge and stopped for breakfast. We found the whole army at this place. About 8 o’clock we moved out about 3 miles from the river and commenced to fortify. The next morning (yesterday) we moved on after the rest of the army. ‘there was skirmishing in front all day yesterday. In the evening we moved to the front and relived (sic) a part of the 9th army corps. Sent out pickets and built breastworks during the night. Some firing occasionally. We are said to be within 11 or 12 miles of Richmond. Farther than this I know nothing of our position. Our breastworks are in the edge of a woods with an open field in front. Our pickets are in the edge of the woods on the opposite side of the field. 

My health is as good as usual. David Wilson is well. Captain Critchlow has been with us all the time and is all right yet. Lary, Pence, Hoge, Bird and the rest of us are well. I have not heard from J. P Wilson for some time. He was in the Hospital at Fredericksburg when I heard from him. I received a letter from Evan dated the 5th. This is the last I have heard from home. 

Two of our wounded have died in hospital one of them was my messmate Samuel H. Cleeland from near Portersville. He was about 17 years old and a very amiable intelligent boy. He was shot through the breast just below the heart. Thus far Co C has had 5 killed and 23 wounded. Through the mercy of an All wise Providence my life has been spared. My trust is still in Him. Write soon. Send some papers. The latest papers you have. 

Your affectionate son, Fred Pettit, Co C 10th P.V.

Screen Shot Battle of Cold Harbor

Battle of Cold Harbor by Kurz & Allison                 public domain

The Battle of Cold Harbor, fought near Mechanicsville, Virginia May 31 to June 12 1864, was one of the bloodiest, most lopsided battles in America’s history. Lt General Grant, assuming General Lee’s army was exhausted, ordered a frontal assault against strong defensive positions. As a result, thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded.

As Fred Pettit was withdrawing down the Shady Grove Church Road to a new position in the rear, he was wounded in the left arm. 72 men in his regiment were lost that day. After a time of recovery in the hospital he returned to the regiment, surprised and honored to have received a promotion. It was short-lived.

On July 9, 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia, while the young soldier was reading or writing he was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter.

After 9 months in a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia Lt. General Grant laid siege to cut off supply lines and weaken the Confederate army. Lee finally abandoned Richmond and Petersburg in April 1865, leading to his retreat and surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Letters penned on the battlefields by soldiers of both sides reveal their fears and hopes, hardships and friendships, convictions, and dedication to the cause for which many laid down their lives.

“The Regiment is the place where every loyal able-bodied man should be,” wrote Pettit. “Hardships are half in the imagination. Thinking of your misery won’t help. Complaining won’t help. Always keep cheerful.” He said it was their duty to endure.

General Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

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Fred Pettit’s May 31, 1864 letter and envelope with 3 cent stamp

Interesting reading:

Infantryman Pettit: The Civil War Letters of Corporal Frederick Pettit, late of Company Co  100th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment, “The Roundheads,” 1862-1864 Edited by William Gilfillan Gavin

An Eye for Glory by Karl Bacon, a novel inspired by the letters of Frederick Pettit