Grant’s Spring campaign was about to begin in earnest. On the 16th of June the 9th corps marched 32 miles. Early on the morning of the 17th the brigade halted to make coffee and rest. After a two hour break the corps continued on, stopping 4 miles outside of Petersburg. By the end of this day Wallace Rosa would go from being a guard at a prison camp to being a prisoner of war. This change in status happened during the start of the Union’s assault on Petersburg, a battle that lasted from June 15-18 and was a major loss to the Union.4
|The upper right area of the map shows the position of Wallace’s regiment during the battle.|
For the battle to come the Sharpshooters had been stationed in an open corn field with only small embankments for protection and with no shade. They suffered much from the heat of the sun. The first skirmish with the enemy was a chaotic mess, with bone-weary soldiers, lines not in place, confused orders, and charges made at the wrong time. But the Sharpshooters could be proud of their efforts at the end of it, as a look into the enemy fire pits showed they were filled with the rebel dead. But the battle was not done.
It was heading towards evening, and there was little light. The next skirmish commenced. This time the Sharpshooters position placed them alone on the field. The other companies were further off. The first advance the Federals made that day had almost broken the back of the Confederates, but unfortunately, unknown to the Federal generals, the rebels had reinforcements arriving. The next and last battle of the day raged until about 11:00 that night. Firing commenced and at one point the Sharpshooters defending their position heard rebels cry out “We surrender don’t fire.” Some of the Sharpshooters were not sure what to do, others hurried to reload, and still others just held their fire. The rebels were arriving in such numbers that they brazenly began demanding the surrender of the Federal troops. But the Sharpshooters would have none of this. They shoved their rifles in the faces of the rebels and fired. Sheets of flame raged up and down the ridge of dirt between the two forces. They were so close together that clothes caught fire with no regard to philosophies. The flashes from the guns illuminated angry faces screaming obscenities. At this time the Sharpshooters had the advantage, since the rebels had just completed a hard march with a quick run at the end of it. As the enemy continued to came over the edge of the ditch, the Sharpshooters lunged at them with bayonets and clubbed them with empty rifles. The two sides grappled in a vicious hand to hand fight. The Sharpshooters drove their bayonets into some of the rebels, others they forced to surrender. The short but bloody engagement came to an end. The Federals had driven the Rebels back but the fight had been devastating loss to the Sharpshooters as there were now only 100 left to man their exposed position. The worst was yet to come.
In the moonlight the Corps commander saw what appeared to be reinforcements arriving, but a second look showed that these were rebel reinforcements. He quickly ran back to his men who had already started firing at the Confederates heading their way. The 100 Sharpshooters could only repel the onslaught for a few minutes before they were overwhelmed. Those who could get away did. Unfortunately for Wallace he was not one of those men. He was quickly stripped of his weapons and accoutrements and hustled away with the other Federal prisoners. Their captors treated the Michigan charges with consideration. Some of the Sharpshooters were surprised as they had expected worse. It was explained that those men who fought in the front, were not the same as those who didn’t as they understood what each other had gone through and didn’t have the same animosity for the enemy as those who were safely away from the front lines. For three days they were confined in an old tobacco warehouse in the city of Petersburg. Then they boarded a train with hundreds of other captives taken in the battle. They were all headed to the prison camps.5, 6
4 While this first battle will be a loss for the Union, eventually the assault on Petersburg will be a win for the Federal Army and will last for several months.
5 Information on the First Michigan Sharpshooters was gleaned from the book These Men Have Seen Hard Service, The First Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civl War, by Raymond J. Herek; Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1998.
6 Source for battle details of Petersburg assault is from Footnote 4, source 87 – Cutcheon, 20th Michigan, 154; Richard J. Sommers, Richmond Re-deemed: The Siege at Petersburg (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981), 183.