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Joseph Scroggs: Observations From His Diary About the 1864 Petersburg Campaign

6/12/2006 • Civil War Times

J. Scroggs, an Ohio farmer, whose Scottish immigrant ancestors included forebears of Vice President Adlai Stevenson and his later famous namesake, felt the emotional pull of the Civil War. Married to Margaret Young, daughter of a river boat captain, and with three children to support, Scroggs at first resisted the glamour of marching off to war. But as others in Columbiana County joined up and as news came of great battles like First Bull Run and Shiloh, Scroggs became restless. On August 5, 1862, he enlisted for ‘three years or during the war.’ He confided to his diary, ‘Tomorrow I leave home, probably never to return…. May God protect my wife and babies. To all my dear friends, Good Bye, Good Bye.’

Scroggs had begun to keep a journal in 1852 and his entries during the fifties reveal the struggling but happy farmer to have been highly religious, a strong Republican in politics and a fervent Unionist with marked antislavery beliefs. In 1857 when the Dred Scott decision was announced he wrote, ‘Our great national sin is the holding in bondage and traffic in the bodies and souls of men…. The cries and groans of these oppressed and suffering millions, have reached the Lord of the Sabbath, who in strict justice hath marked the iniquity of this sinful and ungodly nation.’

Scroggs served in the 104th Ohio as a private stationed in southern Ohio and later in Kentucky. Plagued with flu, dysentery, and chronic migraine headaches, he spent time in various hospitals as well as in the field. On one occasion, papers for his separation from the army for reasons of ill health seemed certain to be approved, but they failed to make it through final processing and his army career continued. With brief visits at home interspersed, he saw action in various Kentucky campaigns.

In October of 1863, Scroggs applied for appointment as a commissioned officer in charge of Negro troops. His interest in the use of black soldiers was longstanding. During 1861, early Union defeats convinced him that the side which first used black troops on a large scale would win the war. ‘Until,’ he wrote, ‘the policy of emancipating and using the slaves of rebels in every capacity is fully and clearly inaugurated, nothing but disaster and defeat awaits us.’ In January of 1864 Scroggs received notice of his appointment as second lieutenant in charge of the 5th Regiment, Union Infantry of African Descent. He left shortly for Norfolk, Virginia, where the new unit was engaged in Grant’s seemingly endless efforts to seize Richmond.

Scruggs’s regiment served with distinction during the slow process of dislodging the Southern forces from the capital city of Richmond. The blacks were ‘honored’ at Petersburg with the lead assignment in seizing the crater after the famous tunnel explosion. Scroggs ably records the sad blunder of the Northern forces in their failure to support the brave assault of his unit.

Scroggs ended his long army service in April of 1865, on the move to North Carolina, still in the field against the enemy. Contrary to his gloomy prediction about never returning home, he was mustered out and died quietly in 1876, in his familiar Ohio sheep country. His diary, kept until the end of the war, has not been published before. We are indebted to Dr. Sig Synnestvedt, State University of New York at Brockport, for furnishing it to us, as well as for editorial notes in the text.

The following extracts from his diary illuminate his observations on the service of Negro troops under his command during the attack on the Crater and, later, in the fighting for Fort Gilmer on New Market Heights, during the Petersburg Campaign of 1864.


July 30-The day is over and the battle is Lost-I had just went out last night in charge of a working party when I was notified to return as the regiment was under marching orders. With its usual celerity, the 5th soon filed from the trenches and in silence took up the line of march. At midnight we were established in our position on the front line, our left joining on the right of the Ninth AC [IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac] with orders to hold our ground but not advance. Capt. Marvin and Lieut. Spangler and their companies I and B were thrown out as skirmishers. Three Div. of the 9th Corps, were massed on our left and formed the charging column supported by the 2nd Corps.



In front of the position held by the 9th C., the rebels had a strong earthwork mounting eleven guns. From the 25th of June a Pa. Regt. had been engaged in running a mine under this redoubt and had successfully accomplished the task and with six tons of powder proposed to effectually destroy it. Three o’clock a.m. this day was the time set for springing the mine; but 3 o’clock came and no explosion. 4 passed and still none. The suspense had become painful, and many began to predict the entire failure of the scheme: when the earth shook and quivered under our feet and with the smothered roar of an earthquake the mighty giant burst from confinement lifting the rebel fort with guns and garrison high in the air.



Hardly had the reverberations ceased when another and more terrible roar burst with an awful cough from the iron thrusts of our hundred pieces of artillery. For one hour without cessation or interval the iron storm raged over our heads, the screaming, hurtling missiles suggestive of ten thousand demons holding high carnival in midair. Then the charging column moved into and through the break made by the distruction of the fort, rapidly deployed and with hardly a struggle the first line of the enemy’s works was ours. Scarcely halting, the 3 Divs (one colored) pressed forward. The enemy had rallied behind his second line of works and received our troops with a heavy fire but they did not falter. In a twinkling they were over the works and the 2nd line with several hundred prisoners was in our possession.



I wish I could write that our operations ceased at this juncture for then commenced our misfortune. Our troops were exhausted but instead of ordering in fresh troops, plenty of which had stacked arms and were leisurely taking their ease in the woods just in rear of our position, the 3 Divs. were halted to rest and reform. The enemy opened on them a destructive enfilading fire from both directions, solid shot, shell, grape and cannister tearing through their ranks with terrible effect. From this slaughter pit they again advanced, but out of shape and much demoralized.



The rebels met them with a withering fire, both of artillery and musketry, hewing passages through the already broken and confused lines. It was too much for human endurance and our men gave way. The rebs with a yell of triumph charged from their works, turned our right flank and captured near 1200 prisoners. It was then 10 a.m. and from that time until 3 p.m. everything was comparatively quiet; then rebs charged and drove our forces from every inch of ground gained in the morning even the ‘Crater’ of the exploded fort.



It was with sorrow and chagrin we beheld this disaster knowing as we did that there was no excuse for it. I was ordered in charge of a small party to go back to the Ammunition train for a supply of Cartridges and in so doing I passed through the greater part of the 2nd and 5th Corps laying idly almost in view of that scene of horrible carnage and defeat, which a few thousand fresh troops composed of such material as the two A.C. [army corps] mentioned and noted for, would have changed to a brilliant and decisive success. Some one high in command has been criminally negligent and I hope will receive the punishment which such conduct so richly merits. By just such vilanious carelessness about details, this bloody and ruinous war has been unnecessarily prolonged. Our loss in killed, wounded and prisoners must have been near 5000. Lt. Spangler and ten men of the 5th Reg. were wounded and one man killed.



Maj. Gen. [James B.] McPherson Comdg. Dept. and Army of the Tenn. was killed in one of the battles before Atlanta, Ga. He was a native of Ohio and a splendid officer.



July 31st S: We expected an attack all day but it remained unusually quiet along the lines. Our troops are moving rapidly to some other point. And the heavy siege guns on this portion of the line are going elsewhere. 3 or 400 dead and wounded are laying between the hostile lines and the rebs will not agree to any arrangement that they may be cared for. Barbarous inhumanity. But it is war.



Sept. 29-To give a full history of the incidents of such an eventful day would require more space than it would be convenient to spare in a small note book: then I only recorded what came under my immediate observation. The 10′ and remainder of the 18′ Corps. had all arrived during the night of the 27th and following day a portion of the forces crossing at Aikens Landing and the rest at Deep Bottom. Our Division [3rd Div. 18′ A.C. Gen. C.J. Paine] was in line at 3 a.m. and left camp just at daylight. All the troops were in motion moving off in various directions to the part assigned them in the day’s bloody work. The Div. SS were thrown forward as the advance skirmishers and before we had got a mile from camp they had found and engaged the enemy. Assisted by skirmishers from the 2nd Brigade [Duncan’s] and supported be the whole brigade they drove the enemy behind their main line of works, following them up closely, but on arriving within easy range of the works a withering fire created considerable confusion in the ranks which it was impossible to correct under fire. However, they bravely advanced, some even as far as the abatis in front of the works until Col. Duncan Comdg. Brig. fell severely wounded, when they retired precipitately.



At 8′ a.m. our Brigade [3d Colonel Draper] was ordered over the same ground. When we received the order we were lying in column by battalion in a deep ravine. The column was immediately deployed in line of battle, formed in double column by division and advanced within 500 yds. of the works. At the word ‘Charge’ we moved forward at a double quick in good order: a thick jungle in our way deranged our ranks slightly and the loss of Lt. Col. Shurtleff and Capts. Fahsion, Cock and Marvin all severely wounded tended to discourage the men of the 5th but they pressed forward bravely following their colors.



I being in command of the 1st Div. had the uncoveted honor of leading the column, and by virtue of necessity [was] the first officer on the enemy’s works. The Color bearer was killed on one side of me and my orderly Sergt. wounded on the other, two of my Sergts killed and my company seemingly annihilated, yet on we went through the double line of abatis, and over their works like a whirlwind. The rebels retreated rapidly and we secured but few prisoners. We continued the pursuit a short distance then halted to inform [reform] the battalion. On getting my Co. [H] together I found I had lost 18 in killed and wounded, that cut [to] 50 the number I started with in the morning.



My O.S. [orderly sergeant] Wm. Strander scarce 20 years of age and as brave a boy as ever wore the diamond refused to go to the rear on being wounded: but with the blood streaming from his neck followed me over the enemys works. Lt. D.L. Way 5th Reg. and A.D. Co. on Drapers Staff was severely wounded.



After resting half an hour we marched ‘on to Richmond.’ Three miles from the first line of rebel works we came to another line which were unfinished and had the appearance of not having been occupied for some time previous. Another mile and we halted a few minutes and were here made aware of our proximity to the hostile forces by them opening on us with artillery. A spherical Case ricocheted a few feet from where I was at the time standing and struck a soldier a few rods in rear of me severing his right leg from his body.



We filed to the right into a forest of dense undergrowth where after much figuring around, we rested until 3 p.m. We then advanced in line of battle about a mile coming out in plain view of the enemy’s works. We scarcely halted but in obedience to orders advanced at once to the assault. Looking over the ground from where we started no correct idea of its nature could be formed, but we soon found that great obstacles were to be surmounted. We crossed one deep ravine before the rebels opened on us and two afterwards, each one a morass and covered with heavy slashing. A battery to our right raked these ravines from end to end and our progress through them being necessarily slow we lost a great many men before gaining solid ground.



We finally struggled through the last swamp and up the last bank, to find ourselves alone and unsupported, exposed to an enfilading fire of artillery and musketry in front which now for the first began to tell upon our ranks with murderous effect. The 118′ N.Y. formed a light skirmish line in front of us and they with the 5th were expected to carry the formidable works. We were ordered to lie down for a moments rest before the final exertion. The bullets rained among us and our laying down was no protection. We could not remain there, and the order to ‘Charge’ was given.



On we went passing near a house behind which the shattered bleeding remnant of the 118′ N.Y. had sought a refuge from the storm of death raging around us: on through the pitiless hail of lead and iron: On, on, with a blind desperation: seeming to have but one idea in view, one purpose, one end to accomplish, and that, to die an honorable death. For myself, I can truly say, I was oblivious of all danger. I had given up the hope of returning alive from this ‘very Jaws of death,’ and thought that it was only left for me to die facing the enemy.



Within one hundred yards of the works the men instinctively halted as if to take breath and that moment saved the remnant of the battalion. The utter hopelessness of succeeding prevaded the mind of every one when they had time to think. I did not lie down as that position offered no security, and I seen the companies one by one commencing on the left to rise to their feet run a few yards and then as if recollecting themselves, walk deliberately from the field. I seen a man of my own Co. [Fleming Taylor] get up, step out a dozen yards in front of the line and cooly fire his piece at the enemy, then slowly follow the Co. from the ground. I seen a Sergeant who had received three different wounds, crying because the battalion would not go farther. I seen men tenderly and slowly carrying their wounded captain [Wilber] off that field of death, and also their wounded comrades, from where to delay was almost madness. I seen all this and more, and no man dare hereafter say aught in my presence against the bravery and soldierly qualities of the colored soldiers.



I was the last officer to leave the field except Lieut. Viers and he was captured. I was completely exhausted being very unwell in the morning to start on the severe exertions of the day had used me up and I was twice compelled to sit down and rest in going from that field where life was the exception to the general rule. Indeed it was only the fear of being captured alive which urged me on and brought me to a place of safety. Ten men gathered around me all that was left of the 50 noble brave boys I had brought out with me a few hours before. I was carried to an ambulance and taken back to Deep Bottom arriving at our old Camp sometime during the night in a state of delirium. So closed that day, a parallel to which I never with to experience. Capt. Wilber and Lieuts. Johnson and Viers were wounded in the afternoon making our loss seven officers during the day and about 330 men.



This article, contributed and edited by Sig Synnestvedt of the State University of New York at Brockport, originally appeared in the December 1972 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.

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One Response to Joseph Scroggs: Observations From His Diary About the 1864 Petersburg Campaign

  1. […] The rest of Scruggs’ diary entry can be read here. […]

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