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August, 1864 – In the Trenches at Petersburg

When speaking about great battles of the Civil War many names come to mind, such as Gettysburg. Rarely does anyone speak about the Siege of Petersburg. But to the 39th Infantry Petersburg was akin to hell and the methods used there, lasted until WWI.

Petersburg Virginia was the focal point of the Confederate supply lines to Richmond. In an attempt to cut off the supplies reaching Lee’s army the North laid siege to Petersburg for 9 months, finally breaking through in March of 1865. The 39th On August 14th ordered to charge the works at Deep Run at the point of the bayonet. George Woodruff in his book Will County in the Civil War describes what happened next.

“On the 16th the brigade was ordered to charge the works at Deep Run at the point of the bayonet. The assault was made by the brigade most gallantly, but it was met by a resistance as stubborn and fierce. Even after the assaulting column had mounted the works, the enemy maintained a hand-to-hand fight.”

“But success at length crowned our brave boys, and the lines of the enemy were broken, and a large number of prisoners captured. But it was at a fearful expense. In perhaps fifteen minutes’ time, the 39th lost 64 men, and came out of the encounter with only two of the officers left on duty that appeared on a roster of 28, when they left Washington in the spring.”

“During this action, a private of Co. G, Henry M. Hardenburg, encountered the color sergeant of an Alabama regiment, when a desperate conflict took place for the colors. After a sharp struggle of some minutes’ duration, Hardenburg was the victor, having dispatched the rebel sergeant, and captured his colors, not, however, without receiving divers wounds himself.”

“He presented the captured colors to Gen. Birney, commanding the corps. General Butler, on hearing of the affair, promoted him to a lieutenancy in a colored regiment. But he did not live long enough to assume the position, as he was himself killed at Petersburg, two days before the commission arrived.”

“The entire loss in this engagement in the 39th was 104 in killed, wounded and missing.” “In the latter part of August, the regiment went into the trenches in front of Petersburg, where it was on duty and under fire almost constantly, night and day.” This was the first time trench warfare was used in battle and it would continue to be used as a useful strategy through the First World War.Note that a reward for private Hardenburg, newly promoted to lieutenancy was to become an officer in a black regiment. Virginia had the highest population of slaves in the Confederacy and the population around the Petersburg area was fifty per cent black. Many of them slipped their bonds and volunteered to fight for the Union. Petersburg was the first battle that was fought by colored regiments to a significant degree.

Note that blacks were not allowed to become officers as it was thought that they simply weren’t smart enough to command. In addition it was thought that they were used to taking orders from white men and so would respond more readily. This notion carried through until WWII. Illinois Voluntary was there starting in June of 1864. they were moved to a place named Deep Bottom and on the 16th they were With losses like the ones the 39th out a call for 500,000 more men but volunteers were harder and harder to find.

On August 20th County Board of Supervisors met and voted a $200 (about $3,000 today) to anyone who would volunteer as a substitute before the draft was initiated.However even $200 was not enough of an incentive and private brokers were needed to find substitutes but for a much higher price. Cal Zarley, the well known editor of the Joliet Signal and hater of the black race, was desperate to find a substitute. He paid $600 (about $9,000 today) for a substitute for himself, who ironically was black. Woodruff says this about these substitutes, “At this time, too, as many, both black and white, who had gone as substitutes, did not prove very good soldiers, but embraced the first opportunity to desert in fact turned bounty-jumpers the government had to establish the rule, that the person who sent a substitute, should be responsible for his fidelity.”The war seemed at a stalemate, an ever hungry monster that ate the young and the brave at an alarming rate; it seemed to the weary folks of Will County that there was no end in sight. And in August 1864 they were right.