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At Petersburg, The Storm Before the Calm

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By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 11, 2009; Page P08

In the last desperate days of the Civil War, the Confederate army limped across Virginia like an injured animal. At the industrial city of Petersburg, the soldiers dug in and made a stand for close to a year against Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's relentless siege. The fighting here was every bit as intense as anywhere during the war. Wrote one Union soldier, "I would not believe before I came here that man was capable of enduring so much."

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My great-grandfather was wounded at Fort Stedman, one of the deadliest places to be during the Petersburg campaign. I didn't have a clear idea of what he had gone through until I visited Petersburg National Battlefield on a day in early spring, the same time of year that the action occurred.

As soon as I entered the visitor center, Ranger Robert Webster offered to help, asking if I had a relative who fought in the war. On a Civil War database, he quickly found information about Alson Gray Thompson, then showed me on a battlefield map where I should go. First, I immersed myself in war lore at the visitor center, which presents an informative slide show (with drawings and historical photographs) and exhibits that make the battle vivid, such as two bullets that collided midair during heavy fighting.

The site of Fort Stedman lies along a four-mile driving tour of the battlefield's eastern front. In the predawn hours of March 25, 1865, a "well-selected body of Confederates," according to a plaque there, assembled in a churchyard about a mile away. My great-grandfather, in the North Carolina 6th Infantry, was among them. Gen. Robert E. Lee's plan was to take Stedman, one of the weakest forts along the line, and so deliver a blow that would knock the Union army back enough to give him and his men time to escape south.

The soldiers marched through a ravine and then up toward the dirt-and-log stronghold. The attack was sudden, unexpected and all-out, the dreaded rebel yell urging the men on, while all around came the crack and boom of guns amid the waving of red battle flags. By 4:30 in the morning the fort had fallen. "We were very much elated at first, as we thought we had won a great victory," observed a Virginia officer.

But as the charge continued, the Union began counterattacking. At some point during the fierce struggle, a bullet (a Minie ball) struck my great-grandfather in the neck. He dropped out and was most likely taken to a temporary field hospital, perhaps the one at Blandford Church. At any rate, the Confederate charge was halted by 8 that morning. Lee had sacrificed 4,000 men and gained nothing; it was to be his last major offensive.

Dogwoods were blooming when I was there, and the only sounds were insects buzzing in the grass and a woodpecker knocking a hollow trunk. I walked through piney woods where eagles nest, then back across an open field that was the scene of brutal combat. Grassy swales and cannons mark where Fort Stedman stood. The drive ends at the Crater, which was featured in Charles Frazier's novel "Cold Mountain." Much earlier in the Petersburg campaign, a mine here had blown up a Confederate battery, leaving an impressive gaping wound in the earth.

With Fort Stedman, the war was over for my great-grandfather, and within two weeks it would be for Lee's army as well. On April 2, Grant judged the time right for a total assault on Petersburg. That night Lee pulled out and led his men in a hasty retreat to the west.

I decided to follow the retreat route along the back roads to Appomattox. The rural scenery preserves the historical feel, and pull-offs make it easy to read the roadside markers. At one stop, a little white wooden church stands in a copse of woods. It remained unharmed despite the skirmishing that took place around it, as George Custer's cavalry struck the retreating Confederate line.

The route takes me by Sailor's Creek, where a state park preserves the site of some particularly nasty fighting. The Federals taunted the Confederates, waving white handkerchiefs. The Confederates answered by firing two deadly volleys. They went at one another with bayonets and rifle butts, and when those were gone they began rolling on the ground like wild beasts, biting throats, ears and noses.

Late afternoon sun burnished the little village of Appomattox as I arrived. It was here on April 9, 1865, that the Civil War effectively ended when Lee surrendered his 30,000-man army to Grant. I took a look in the tavern, courthouse, law office and other buildings -- some original, others reconstructed -- and put together an image of the two great commanders sitting down together to work out the terms of the surrender, and of the Confederates then stacking their weapons and heading home. It was a moving final act in the nation's greatest drama.

While the retreat was going on, my great-grandfather was moved to a hospital in Richmond. After that city fell, he was taken as a prisoner to Point Lookout, Md., where he languished for two months with the Minie ball still lodged under his tongue. In June 1865 he swore an oath of allegiance to the United States and made his way home to his wife and his farm. According to our family Bible, he was in his late 20s.

Alson Thompson was lucky: He survived with his limbs intact, and the Minie ball became a family relic. He was able to work the land again and to help raise seven children, one of whom, my grandfather, would go to France in 1917 to fight in another great war. He fought as a U.S. soldier, just as his son, my father, would fight as a U.S. sailor in World War II. But those are other stories.


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