A Letter from Petersburg

Engraving of the Battle of Petersburg is from the website Son of the South.

The closest post office to my great-great grandfather Allison Dry’s farm would’ve been in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, about five miles away. That’s where the letter telling him that his son, Daniel, had been killed at Petersburg, Virginia on June 17, 1864 would’ve been sent.

It's been said that the post office was the only department in the Confederate States government that was operated efficiently, but it still would’ve been days or perhaps a week or more before word of Daniel’s death reached his family in rural Cabarrus County.
It was customary during the Civil War for commanding officers of soldiers killed in action to write letters to their families explaining how their kin had died. But officers – especially those commanding troops in combat – didn’t have a lot of spare time, and so days probably passed before Captain Jonas Cook, commander of Company H of the 8th North Carolina Infantry, could take a moment to write letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that one of Daniel’s friends in Company H scrawled a hasty note to his family telling them that he’d been killed, and that this letter reached Daniel's family before that of the company commander.

Whenever the letter was written, it would’ve taken several more days to move from Petersburg to Mount Pleasant. Rural free delivery of mail was decades away, and so Allison would’ve had to make a trip into Mount Pleasant to collect his mail. So the letter with the awful news may have waited for several more days in the Mount Pleasant post office until Allison had time to go check his mail.
I wonder how Allison and his family dealt with this latest dose of bad news. Daniel was the second of his sons to die in the war. His son Thomas had died of smallpox about five months earlier in the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And he’d also lost two brothers. His brother Henry had died of typhoid in Charleston, South Carolina in 1863, and his brother Moses had been killed at the Battle of Plymouth only two months earlier.

His son William, my great-grandfather, had been imprisoned at Point Lookout since being captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia in October 1863. About 50,000 Confederates were held there, barely surviving on a starvation diet.
By the summer of 1864, only a miracle could save the Confederate cause, but Southerners were more than willing to hold out for that miracle. And it could have come in the form of the U.S. presidential election in November. President Abraham Lincoln had doubts about whether he'd win reelection. He knew that if he lost, a new president of the war-weary Union might be willing to settle for a negotiated peace that would either have allowed the Confederate States to remain a separate nation or allowed the seceded states back into the Union with slavery preserved.

For months, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been trying to keep his Army of Northern Virginia between the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. He was stalling for time, hoping he could keep up some sort of resistance until the fall election. It was a long shot, but it was the only chance he had.
The regimental history of the 8th North Carolina Infantry doesn’t have a lot to say about the events of June 17, 1864. The unit was ordered to Petersburg on June 14. They arrived on the afternoon of June 16 and immediately dug into defensive positions near Petersburg where, only a few months earlier, they’d engaged in a raucous snowball fight with comrades in the 51st North Carolina Infantry.

 “There was no time to be lost,” H.T.J Ludwig wrote in the unit’s regimental history in 1900. “The enemy was advancing. The line of battle was formed in the (earth) works around that city and the approach of the enemy awaited.”
“On the morning of the 17th the firing began early,” Ludwig wrote. “All forenoon there was heavy skirmishing. About 5 p.m. it was evident that a heavy assault on our line was contemplated. The enemy was massing his troops in our front. Just before dark the assault was made. The enemy succeeded in breaking the line occupied by the brigade on our immediate right and rushed his forces into the breach thus made. The Eighth Regiment was ordered to assist in driving the enemy out and regaining the line. The work was done and the line re-established. After several hours fighting the enemy retired, leaving our line unbroken.”

At some point during this “several hours of fighting” that ended in the fading light of June 17, 1864, Daniel was killed. He was 20 years old. He's buried in a mass grave at the Petersburg battlefield.

Had Union troops broken the Confederate line that day, Richmond would have been vulnerable and the Civil War might very well have been over in a matter of days or weeks. But the stubborn Confederate resistance meant that Grant would have to lay siege to Petersburg, and the war would drag on for another 10 grueling months.

Sources for this post included Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, and an interview with Robert Krick, historian at the Richmond National Battlefield Park.